One of the great liabilities of history is that too many people fail to awake through great periods of social change.
By Alfred Day
As someone who works in and around the business of history every day, I find Dr. King’s words both unsettling and illuminating.
Who wants to see their chosen field of endeavor with liabilities? But prophets like Dr. King are truth-tellers poking and prodding where we grow comfortable, staid, and taking things for granted.
There are those who understand history as a benign, boring recitation of the past. How many say history was their least favorite subject in school, bemoaning every moment as mere memorization of names, dates and places? Or as some kind of proof-text: “As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be.” The work of history practiced that way isn’t only liable but should to be sued for defamation of character.
I was not a person who dreaded the subject of history. I continue to delight in reading, studying, and reflecting on the chronicles and personalities of the past because of history’s progressiveness—its potential for awakening. History is a great source of “Ah-ha! So that is why things are the way they are! What if…?”
I have seen history work awakening. That not to say there haven’t been times that I have been dull to history’s revelations. But the quote from Dr. King I’ve been asked to reflect on reminds me more of history’s assets than its liabilities.
I’m remembering a time when Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church in Old City Philadelphia and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a parent church and its progeny, separated because of horrible acts of racism, came together for Sunday worship for the first time since they split sometime between 1787 and 1792. I was privileged to be St. George’s pastor at the time.
The back story is deeply embedded in Methodist’s denominational DNA. Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, colonial-era black leaders in the congregation, had grown St. George’s African constituency to the point overflow. With too few seats for too many people and a cultural norm of white privilege, whites were seated first and blacks were relegated to what was left.
Eventually a balcony was erected to ease the overcrowding. But even then not every seat in the new gallery was available to blacks. On a certain Sunday, blacks went to the balcony as instructed only to be told they were sitting in seats reserved for whites. A fracas ensued that led to Absalom Jones’ forceful and physical removal from the seat he occupied while the pastor was praying the opening prayer. This action led Allen, Jones, and other blacks to leave St. George’s, beginning an exodus of people of African descent which eventually formed separate black Methodist congregations and ultimately an autonomous black Methodist denomination, The African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816).
Visitors to Historic St. George’s come to the church located within the bounds of the Independence Hall National Park for a variety of reasons. While many whites come to experience one of the original Methodist meeting places in America, many blacks come to this place to experience an early historical touchstone of one more incident of African Americans struggling through indignity and injustice towards freedom and self-determination.
But on October 29, 2009, Mother Bethel AME and St. George’s UMC came together for Sunday worship for the first time since their breakup. On that Sunday, different from previous “reunions” that had happened over the years, the churches met for Sunday worship. That meant that at the 11 am hour—an hour Dr. King had lamented years before as the most segregated hour of in a typical American week—Mother Bethel AME closed its doors and took its regular Sunday service to George’s. Some weeks later, near the time of Richard Allen’s birthday, St. George’s UMC closed its doors and moved its services to Mother Bethel.
This was more than a token gesture. The congregations have continued the tradition of a shared annual worship on Sunday and Maundy Thursday with foot washing for the years since.
The greatest awakenings came in the relationships that emanated from and continue to grow out of planning worship together, learning one another’s names, greeting each other on the street as neighbors, occasions of shared Bible study and even envisioning a shared Volunteer in Mission trip.
The liabilities of living in the comfort zones of each congregation’s separate recitations of the their respective histories raised a new appreciation not only for old wounds but new possibilities for relationships and shared ministries, especially those that teach about racial justice.
But that’s not all. As St. George’s UMC became more and more familiar with this part of their history which had been so rationalized and brushed over, other opportunities presented themselves. Now when St. George’s greets Confirmation classes from across the Northeastern Jurisdiction or engages tour groups from around the nation and the world, it not only tells the infamous balcony story but leaves visitors with a question: Who is the church of today, who in the church of your experience is pushed to the margins—forced to the balcony—and kept from full inclusion and engagement? And what will you do about it?
It has been fascinating to watch the flashes of recognition and awakening.
Alfred (Fred) Day is the General Secretary of the Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church. He works at the United Methodist Archives and History Center in Madison, New Jersey, located on the campus of UMC-related Drew University. He is an elder in full connection in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.