COLUMBIA, S.C. – It had been more than 45 years since the nation’s three Black Methodist churches came together for one shared purpose, organizers said, making this month’s Great Gathering a historic reunion.
The three-day conclave from March 1 to March 3 in Columbia was intended to both find solutions to the plight of African-American males and help the churches renew their connection. . Organizers estimated that between 12,000 and 13,000 people attended the event.
“It will be a rediscovering of each other,” said the Right Rev. John Bryant, presiding bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, on the opening day of the conference.
The Rev. Staccato Powell, event chairman and a minister in the AME Zion denomination, said many came into the meeting with preconceptions about each other and some questioned whether the three churches could work in harmony.
“All of us kind of look at each other with jaundiced eyes but I think that has been finally allayed to the point where [we realize] we’re all the same people—same family—and I think they’re all surprised that this has happened to this magnitude,” he told the AFRO. “They didn’t think it was going to work—even some of the bishops were skeptical about it.”
Bishop Adam. J. Richardson, prelate of the AME church’s Second Episcopal District, which includes Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Maryland, said that though most participants were “still feeling our way” around each other, many walls of division had been toppled.
“We had a chance to meet our counterparts close up—missionaries meeting missionaries, presiding elders meeting other presiding elders, bishops meeting each other….It’s been a wonderful time of fellowship,” he said.
Selina Nelson, of Paterson, N.J., said she didn’t realize how much she had in common with other Black Methodists before she started talking to others at the conference.
“It was like meeting an old friend you hadn’t seen in a long time,” she told the AFRO. “We have the same thread…we’re all one and the same.”
In fact, said Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Bishop Thomas Hoyt Jr., of Washington, D.C., the differences between the churches are minute.
“The only difference we have is in terms of when we started,” he said. “We all came out of a situation where we struggled against racism in the White church.”
The AME church was established in 1787 in Philadelphia by former slave Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, after officials at St. George’s MEC pulled Blacks off their knees while praying. The AME Zion followed in 1796, when Blacks in New York voted themselves out of the White Methodist Episcopal Church. The CME followed in 1870, when Black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South decided to seize their religious independence.
“We should have been moving in lockstep all these years,” Bishop Bryant said. “We are brothers and sisters connected in our history, connected in our theology, but we have been distant. But the larger issues than our theology have brought us together at this time.”
The gathering went so well, organizers said, that some began talking about officially breaking down the barriers between the churches to form one body. Collectively, the churches have more than 5 million members worldwide.
“It has been extremely successful,” Powell said of the event. “The only thing that’s missing is for somebody to say, I move to begin the process for organic union.”
Bishop Hoyt said that process would have to be approached cautiously and would take time. Instead, he said, they’d be better off focusing on a unity of spirit and on working together to meet the needs of the Black community.
“But I don’t think we’re ready for organic union,” he said.