A church is not a building, but a group of people coming together with shared values. Part of the rich story of Methodism includes African Americans who chose to stay with the denomination despite being sometimes excluded or treated unfairly. Archivists hope churches and families will donate items to the African American Methodist Heritage Center, so the stories of those who built the church will remain alive for future generations.
(Locator: Philadelphia, PA)
(Sound of church service)
Betty Henderson, Mother Zoar United Methodist Church: “…if something goes wrong, the first place they come is to the church. It’s still vital in the African-American community.”
Members at Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church in Philadelphia know very well the value of being part of the life story of a denomination. Their congregation is one of the oldest in the U.S., formed in 1787.
Recovering and preserving the rich history of African Americans in the church is the goal of the African American Methodist Heritage Center, says executive assistant Carol Travis.
Carol Travis, African American Methodist Heritage Center: “I think we all need to care more about each other’s stories. That’s all we have. I think if we understood more about each other’s stories we wouldn’t have as many things going on in the world.”
Dale Patterson, Chief Archivist, United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History: “We have a big story. Our lives, whether as individuals, as a church, a community, are actually large and complicated. And it’s really kind of exciting to see communities asking the question, ‘How can we become involved in telling that complicated story?’”
The history of African Americans, once excluded from the main life of the church, includes the stories of those who stayed, and made the denomination what it is today.
The center’s collection is maintained by the General Commission on Archives and History on the campus of Drew University in New Jersey.
The Rev. Alfred T. Day, Chief Executive, United Methodist Commission on Archives and History: “We are setting aside a spot for people and parts of Methodism that haven’t always been treated with the dignity and importance that they should have been given.”
Family members are the greatest contributors to the center.
Carol Travis, African American Methodist Heritage Center: “I get two or three calls a week from people who are going through their father’s, their grandfather’s papers, and they know about us. And they say, ‘I’ve just found 10 years’ worth of minutes from the Central Jurisdiction. Do you have a place for them?’ Of course I do. ‘I just found a reel-to-reel copy of a video that was done 20 years ago. Do you have any use for it?’ Those are the kinds of things that we really hope people will send to us so that long after all of us are gone, that material will continue to be there.”
The archive can’t possibly accept everything but they do want to preserve the stories of as many families as possible. Significant sermons, photos or other items will be well taken care of.
Carol Travis: “One of my favorite stories is about a gentleman from New Orleans who called me. He said, ‘Ms. Travis, I don’t want to send you all this stuff from my father.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. Send me something, sir. Please send me something.’ So he did. Nine months later Katrina happened and he lost everything. Everything. And he called me. He started to break down while he was speaking to me. He said, ‘The only thing that I know where it is are the papers of my father. Can you send me copies?’ Within three days we had copies of his father’s materials and sent them to him. And that was all he had left.”
An oral history archive will include interviews with the wives of Methodist bishops.
Ruth Thomas: “It took a long time for the South to change. It had to be a gradual thing.”
Carol Travis: “We thought that would be an interesting story because wives’ stories are very rarely told. And you know they have some stories about what went on.”
Carol Travis: “Even our own folks don’t really know some of the sacrifices that foreparents made for The United Methodist Church to survive, and were very important in the founding of it, the continuation of it and that we will be around as it continues into the future.”