Article36 Mother Bethel
Mother Bethel Church today at Sixth and Lombard streets in South Philadelphia. The church is the oldest independent Protestant denomination founded by Black people in the world. —(Photo / Visit Philadelphia)

The African Methodist Episcopal Church will celebrate 200 years of existence at its 50th quadrennial session July 6 to July 13.

Organizers are expecting 35,000 people from all over to come to the AME church’s birthplace and celebrate a history that began with its founder, Bishop Richard Allen, and a future full of work to fight for more freedom.

“We are telling our story,” said First Episcopal District Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram, also the conference host Bishop. “We have a great opportunity to make an impact, tell a story and do something. And this is really happening from humble beginnings, from a slave that purchased his own freedom. This is just tremendous, this is the church’s finest hour and the best days of the church are not behind us but in front of us.”

In addition to departmental reports regarding the AME body, the conference will include worship services, one of which is ecumenical; a retirement celebration; and several business sessions on different topics, including: Economic Development, Social Action, Church Growth, Women in Ministry and Christian Arts.

Jessica Kendall Ingram, the conference host supervisor, said the business sessions deal with the “legislation of the church.”

The week of events will kick off with a Bicentennial Torch Run, hosted in partnership with the American Cancer Society, from Dover, Del. to the city’s legendary Mother Bethel AME Church. This run, said Ingram, is one aspect of the conference that “speaks to the wholeness of people and our own welfare.”

The Economic Development session, he said, will involve conversations on “investment, stewardship and finding new streams of income” for the church and and initiatives we are advocating for.” The Social Action session, said Ingram will deal with the “Black Lives Matter” movement; “voter registration, all the things that impact the life of our people. We have to be the voice. Where people are marginalized and dispossessed, we have an obligation. We are speaking truth to power and being those people God called us to be, to speak to those issues that impact the lives of our people.”

Bishop Jeffrey Leath, a Philadelphia native who now serves as the presiding bishop of the 13th Episcopal District (Kentucky and Tennessee), said this is the aspect of the conference that he is anticipating.

“I am looking forward to a commitment from the church to embark on a new century of prophetic and liberating service, being more spiritually connected to the membership and evangelistic in our relationship to unbelievers,” he said.

Leath noted part of this service includes “continually to be conscious on issues like voter turnout, education reform, mass incarceration and the development of livable wage jobs [and] greater sensitivity to personal issues affecting people around the world such as gender issues and evolving social issues such as single parent families and other issues that are important to for healthy and thriving communities.”

In order to impact the above, according to Leath, the AME body must “agree to disagree” in some areas.

“There are some areas where we don’t agree as to the best course of action,” he said. “The biggest step is the resolve to change because that entails a commitment to listen and a commitment to accept one’s personal position may not be the only position and may not be the best position.”

Following the Torch Run on Saturday, the Bishop Richard Allen statue at Sixth and Lombard streets will be unveiled and dedicated.

As a fitting nod to the special character of African-American independence, on Independence Day, the conference will dedicate the Bishop Richard Allen mural.

“It really is incredible,” Leath said. “We have not been in Philadelphia for a meeting of this magnitude for 48 years, It’s great to be back in our birthplace. It is an opportunity for Philadelphians in general and African-Americans in particular to reflect on what a historical and influential place was 200 years ago for the minority community.”