Turner Memorial AME Church sits at a fork in the road of an unassuming community in Hyattsville, a transitioning church in a county full of thriving megachurches. On this Sunday morning, the doors are open for all who will come and if the Rev. William H. Lamar IV’s prayers are answered, they will remain open for a long time.
It will not be, however, without change and some hard work. Turner Memorial was organized in 1919 in Washington, D.C., and flourished there for more than eight decades. Like several other D.C. churches looking for more space to accommodate their growing memberships and expanding ministries, the church moved to Prince George’s County in 2003 and settled into a three-level sanctuary in the 7200 block of 16th Place.
Now, the church and its new pastor are examining what it needs to do to spur growth in an area where churches with thousands of members are increasing and a community where the demographics are shifting.
Lamar said he does not begrudge the huge churches to which many people are flocking, because they serve a purpose. Turner Memorial has a purpose too, he said.
“Many of those churches have found ways to place the needs of their constituency at the core of how they develop and do ministry,” Lamar said. “There are enough people and enough communities in the metropolitan area that if we placed the needs of those outside [the church] in the center of ministry, then they would be attracted.”
Lamar, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Aug. 12, was raised in Macon, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla. He graduated from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. In 1999, he completed Duke University Divinity School and received his first pastoral appointment to St. Phillip AME Church in Monticello, Fla. Over the next nine years, he served as pastor at St. Phillip, Greater St. Paul AME in Orlando and New Bethel AME in Jacksonville.
In early 2008, he went back to Duke Divinity School to train Christian leaders. However, he said, God told him to return to the ministry and in February 2011, he took the position as Turner Memorial’s pastor.
Lamar said he grew up middle class and when he became pastor of Turner Memorial, he inherited a congregation of middle-class members. This was both a blessing and a curse, he said. The African-American middle class was launched out of churches just like his decades ago when churches were the center of Black life. However, now, as Blacks have been able to achieve the so-called American dream, many have abandoned the church. Lamar wants to reverse that trend.
“What I thought 15-20 years ago when I decided to go to seminary was [that] I wanted be a part of a church that could attract folk like me, who had gone to college, came back to church to serve and to worship the God that made possible their success,” he said, adding that he wanted to “then sow that back into communities that did not have it.”
That’s his goal at Turner Memorial. To start, he wants to attract more congregants. Half of the church’s 500 members—about 250 attend services regularly—are over 50 years old. He’s has also reached out to the church’s Latino and African neighbors. A Latino congregation shares space in the church, worshipping on Wednesdays and Saturdays. A community day is scheduled in October to bring in the congregation’s multicultural neighbors for games, a college fair, food, vendors and entertainment.
The church is doing outreach at nearby Buck Lodge Middle School, a school that is more than 75 percent Hispanic. The church is partnering with the school to create a STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—program for students.
“We want to be a church that appeals to all,” said Patricia A. Browne, of Springdale, who grew up in the church and serves on the diversity team. “We want to take advantage of the fact that we have members of every generation represented at the church, which provides us a rich opportunity for cross-generational enrichment.”
At a recent worship service, the church’s oldest member, Joel McLeod, 102, led the congregation in a traditional hymn, playing the harmonica as accompaniment. A multi-generational trio—two members were in their 30s and one was in her 90s—joined together for a medley. Liturgical dancers who performed ranged in age from 5 to 80 something. Lamar recognized every generation—from babies to McLeod.
“Every congregation doesn’t have that,” Brown said.
On a recent Sunday service, members praised with enthusiasm. Older women in their finest church hats and middle-aged women in West African garb celebrated side by side. There were a smattering of teenagers and young children. The choir, co-directed by Lamar’s brother, Marty Lamar, sang several popular gospel songs, including William McDowell’s “I Won’t Go Back,” along with traditional hymns. Lamar’s wife, Courtney, a Ph.D. who teaches at Bowie State University, assists the church in technology-related concerns and many programs.
However, Lamar readily admitted that he’s going to need to attract younger Members. He has allowed more creative expression in dancing, singing and other forms of art—as long as it glorifies God. Christian comedian Steffon Vann performed briefly on a recent Sunday.
“Young people are not just going to start coming because I’m here,” he continued. “The culture has to change.”
Attorney Kisha Brown, 34, of College Park, said Lamar has changed the dynamic of the Sunday services.
“On youth Sundays, he’s allowed the young people to wear the shirts or colors of the high school or college they attend,” she said. “During the Trayvon Martin situation, we had a ‘Wear Your Hoodie to Church Day.’ He just makes sure that…we know what’s going on in the real world.”
Lamar said that the road ahead for the church is long but that the members, working together, can accomplish what needs to be done to grow.
“What a pastoral leader can do is corral the gifts and graces of those who are there, work together on a common vision and mission, and pray that by the power of the spirit, we can move together toward that,” he said.