History alone not enough to sustain two AME churches

Merged congregation counts on youth, universal message for strong future

Sister Gloria Evans gives praise during a worship service at St. Luke AME church, 900 New York St. on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

Black history musical is Sunday

Expect a lot of music and a lot of people at St. Luke AME church for this weekend’s Black History Month Musical.

“It’s going to be packed,” organizer Joyce McCray Pearson told the congregation on a recent Sunday.

The musical, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” is set for 3:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke, 900 New York St. Admission is free.

St. Luke invites churches from the surrounding area to perform during the annual event. This year’s lineup includes several other traditional black churches plus Plymouth Congregational Church and the Lawrence Indian United Methodist Church. The Mighty Pleasant Tones also are expected to perform.

Refreshments will be served afterward in St. Luke’s Langston Hughes Fellowship Hall.

Leonard Monroe, 83, is belting out the solo sections of “Steal Away to Jesus” from the choir box of St. Luke AME, the church he joined when he was 14.

My Lord, he calls me,

He calls me by the lightning;

The trumpet sounds within my soul…

Voices joining in for the spiritual’s refrain range from that of 71-year-old Charleen Coleman to 31-year-old Chauncey Jackson. One-year-old Jayvion Lewis may not be singing but he’s up front, too, sidling up to grandfather George Rennels.

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!

The choir is a snapshot of the new face of the AME church in Lawrence.

In the late 1800s tiny Lawrence was home to two thriving AME churches whose congregations, at times throughout the years, numbered in the hundreds. After membership dwindled, St. James in North Lawrence closed and merged with St. Luke in East Lawrence, where a small but lively congregation now looks to ensure it’s solidifying the church’s future.

Membership tips toward the mature end but is not without youngsters.

“It’s the foundation of the church,” Rev. Verdell Taylor Jr. says of the older generation. But he adds, “If you’re not growing your youth, then you won’t be around too long.”

Era ends

Coleman, from the choir, was baptized at St. James in the 1940s and attended until the church closed in 2012, an emotional milestone.

647 Maple St., North Lawrence. Built in 1897 as St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, recently purchased and being renovated for use as an artist studio.

“They always say that church is within you, and you shouldn’t get too attached to a building,” Coleman said. “But I think we still were attached to the building. It was just hard to get people to come.”

St. James was organized the 1860s, and the congregation built and moved into the white wooden building at 647 Maple St. in 1897.

Membership seesawed through the decades.

A 1903 master’s thesis on file at Watkins Museum of History notes the church had about 200 members in its early years but about 90 at that time. Newspaper articles put membership around 45 in 1970, plummeting to only four in 2000, rocketing to more than 200 in 2005 but quickly falling back to about 40.

Around that time structural problems with the building forced churchgoers to meet at satellite locations, and Coleman said some left for new church homes. She said most remaining members were retirees in late 2012, when attendees at the African Methodist Episcopal Fifth Episcopal District’s Midwest Annual Conference voted to close St. James and merge with St. Luke, 900 New York St.

About 25 St. James members joined St. Luke, Taylor said. He said it’s been apparent for years that Lawrence — also home to Ninth Street Missionary Baptist, another traditionally black church that dates to the mid-1800s — wasn’t able to support two AME congregations but that doesn’t make change any less difficult.

“It’s painful for people to close their churches, extremely painful,” Taylor said. “These are people whose grandfathers, grandmothers built these churches.”

Strength in numbers, youth

Donald Shepard, 71, also was baptized in St. James and was a third-generation member there. He migrated to St. Luke about four years ago.

One-year-old Jayvion Lewis, center watches as his grandfather, George Rennels, plays the piano during a worship service at St. Luke AME church, 900 New York St. on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. Also pictured is 3-year-old Jeremiah Lewis.

“I think it’s great that the churches have become one,” Shepard said. “Change is hard, you know that. But after a while, after a year’s time, things have smoothed out and everybody is, as I say, kind of enjoying themselves.”

St. James members have boosted the St. Luke choir and taken leadership roles in their new church home. But perhaps the most important re-emergence since the two churches became one is a youth group, which St. Luke hadn’t had for several years.

The Young People’s Division meets twice a month, with about 20 regular attendees ages 3 through high school, said Kim Fuller, one of the group’s leaders.

Whereas church once was a priority for more families, a change in attitude and even Sunday morning activities such as extracurricular sports now prove conflicting for many, Fuller said. She wants the youth program to be a place to plug in, learn about the Bible, participate in activities and community service and find support with homework or other life challenges. Fuller was pleasantly surprised at the youths’ disappointment the few times leaders have had to cancel meetings.

“It’s like, ‘Wow — they really are paying attention; they really are enjoying it,'” Fuller said.

Choosing AME

Segregation spurred the founding of the AME church, but in an era where people can attend anywhere they want, tradition and upbringing keeps many coming back to black churches.

The Rev. Verdell Taylor Jr. delivers a sermon during a worship service at St. Luke AME church, 900 New York St., on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

However, tradition alone isn’t enough anymore.

Fuller likes the familiarity of the denomination she grew up in and the kinship with other black people she feels are going through the same things she is. But the sticking point for her is sermons that speak to her — and Taylor’s messages hit home every week.

Fuller guesses her mother, a St. Luke regular, would stay AME no matter what. If she were looking for a new church, Fuller said, “I would try to stay traditionally black, but if I couldn’t find what I was looking for, then I would go elsewhere.”

St. Luke steward Lawrence Settles, 29, who is mixed-race, grew up going to black churches with his parents and has been to a wide range of others, including Catholic and nondenominational. But the energetic preaching and the musical tradition are the top reasons he sought out a black church when he moved to Lawrence.

“It’s the soul that kind of draws me to it,” he said. “You don’t really get that other places. It’s not that there’s any difference in the amount of devotion or spirituality or commitment. I think for everybody there’s just something that they connect with.”

While services may include some direct references to race, the sermons are universal.

“Everyone here’s a family,” said Jackson, the choir president. “We’re all here for one purpose, and that’s to serve God.”

Future footing

“Because of our name there are many people who think we are an all-black church,” Taylor said. “That’s not the case.”

Parishioners attend a worship service at St. Luke AME church, 900 New York St., on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

On a recent Sunday morning at St. Luke, all dozen choir members and 30 or so people in the pews — mostly black and a few white, including teens in jeans and older members in their Sunday best — filed to the front and hit their knees during the altar call.

That turnout is typical for a cold winter day with snow on the ground, Taylor said. The church’s current membership is about 145, he said, with maybe 60 actually in church on a given Sunday.

Taylor said he thinks St. Luke’s history is a strength that will help its future. The “friendly church on the corner,” which Langston Hughes attended as a boy, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has received grant money for significant restoration projects, Taylor said.

Besides that, he said, cultivating the youth, remaining active in the community outside the church and preaching the word — “and it’s a word for everyone” — will help St. Luke prevail.

Members are optimistic, too.

“There’s an old saying, we’ve got to keep on keepin’ on,” Shepard said. “And I think that’s what we’re going to do.”