PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) — Pueblo was only five years old and still considered a burgeoning territorial town when St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church was launched in 1875.
In those days, the church was located at Eighth and Elizabeth streets. Colorado wouldn’t be granted statehood until 1876.
Much has changed in the years since. But the church (now known as First African Methodist Episcopal Church) remains, and the congregation celebrated the its 143rd anniversary on Sunday with a guest speaker, the Rev. Arthur Carter Jr., pastor at Payne Chapel AME Church in Colorado Springs. The Payne Chapel choir also performed.
St. John Church served as the center of the Black community in Pueblo, much like the Catholic churches did for the ethnic neighborhoods that made up Pueblo in those days.
In 1915, under the leadership of Bishop H.B. Parks and the Rev. John Adams, St. John’s built the brick structure at 613 Mesa Ave. where it resides today.
The move was made, according to the Rev. Margaret Redmond, because its former location made it difficult for congregants living in the Bessemer area to attend services.
“If you look at the history of the AME churches, they were planted at the intersection of roads leading into town,” Redmond said. “As America was moving westward, Black people could always find a place to sleep, eat and to find jobs at the churches.”
Many did flock to Pueblo seeking employment at the Colorado Fuel and Iron steel mill. A good number relocated from Bessemer, Alabama, where they had worked in the steel mills.
In the summer of 1889, six individuals organized a second African Methodist Episcopal Church to serve many of the transplants who were seeking a place to worship.
The men who organized the new church were Von Dickerson, John Moore, Gabriel Holmes, W.A. Holly, J.K. Williams and Doel Bray, all of whom later served as trustees of the church.
Originally located on the upper level of the Old Company Store of CF&I, the church — then known as Pine Street Church — was forced to move when the building was destroyed by fire.
After the move, the newly relocated church changed its name to St. Paul’s AME Church when it was incorporated in 1903.
St. Paul’s and St. John’s were combined in 1976, and the church’s name was changed to First AME Church.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church movement was launched in Philadelphia in 1787 in response to racial discrimination.
A group of Black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia responded to a call to worship by coming forth to the altar.
“The trustees told them it was not their turn to pray,” Redmond said.
One of the group, Richard Allen, confronted the church officials.
“‘If you allow us to finish our prayers, we will trouble you no more,”’?Redmond said, relating the story. “They walked out of the church and established their own church.”
In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated in Philadelphia, with Allen as pastor.
To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering White Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution, according to the church history.
Because Black Methodists in other middle-Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the AME.
Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has membership in 20 Episcopal districts in 39 countries on five continents. There are 4,000 churches worldwide.
One of the early areas of focus for the church was education and spirituality. The results of that emphasis remain in evidence today. More than 15 colleges are still training students for civic, social, government and theological engagement.
FIRST AME CHALLENGES
Since its beginning at St. John’s, First AME has been led by 78 pastors. Redmond, its current pastor, was the first woman selected to lead the church.
Two former pastors still worship at First AME, the Rev. O.T. Jackson (St. John’s) and the Rev. E.D. Farris (First AME).
The church, like all of churches today, faces its challenges.
At it’s height, First AME had more than 400 members. Today, its numbers have dwindled to 37.
Redmond attributes the drop in membership to several factors.
“The decline of Christendom is one,” Redford said. “The number of African-Americans in Pueblo also has declined.”
Redmond said most of her members are older than 70.
“We’ve lost members through death, attrition and relocation,” Redmond said. “After the steel mill declined, African Americans moved away.”
Redmond persists today because of her loyal congregants and also out of respect for what the AME Church represents.
Since its inception, the AME Church has provided African-Americans with a place to congregate, to come together as a community and to worship.
Information from: The Pueblo Chieftain, http://www.chieftain.com