The United Methodist Church aims to correlate religious history with historical facts of oppressive events.
By Steve Kelsey
Historic St. George’s church in Philadelphia prides itself on being the oldest acting United Methodist church in the United States. The church has found a way to mix its religious history into the history of Philadelphia as a whole.
On April 22 St. George’s hosted a Time Traveler event for confirmands and adult participants from seven different churches across the states of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. The goal of the event was simple, to teach the youth about their religious history.
For the event all of the participants were split up into four different groups where they could meet other individuals from other churches, who shared the same beliefs, as a way of expanding their religious connections.
The event started off with a gathering in the sanctuary with an introduction by current St. George’s pastor Maridel Whitmore. As she was speaking she was interrupted by Peyton Dixon who was portraying Simon Blessing, a 1700s itinerant minister who had somehow traveled to 2017.
Dixon said that his introduction to the event came when he was researching Methodist history and met Fred Day, who started the program.
“We hit on a mutual interest in bringing the history alive through first person interpretation,” Dixon said. “We talked about the prospect of bringing this amalgamated pastor, based on journals and history of Methodist preachers, into being, and to share it with the confirmands during this event.”
While Dixon was preaching to the confirmands on the lower level of the church an argument broke out in the balconies above. Leonard Dozier, portraying African-American minister Richard Allen, was grabbed by the shoulder and forced to leave his seat during a communal prayer.
Dozier and the participants in his group left the sanctuary and proceeded downstairs to have a conversation about the racist event that had just been reenacted.
“The first civil rights movement happened right here, at St. George’s,” Dozier said.
Dozier gave his group a history lesson about Richard Allen and what resulted from the event. After being kicked out of the service, in 1787, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones left St. George’s to start the Mother Bethel African American Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in 1794.
While having a discussion with his group about the interrupted prayer, Dozier knew that there was one effective way of helping the youth understand the importance of what had just happened.
“I think one of the reasons we do this after this experience is we want to start thinking about how what you witnessed this morning is still relevant today,” Dozier said. “Bullying is a big deal as well as racial profiling. Here we are in the 21st century and what you witnessed this morning is still very much at play.”
Dozier went on to question both his own group and the larger group of participants whether or not they would have stayed and protested St. George’s decision to remove the African-American worshipers during prayer or if they would have left with the crowd and started their own denomination.
The time traveler event has been going on for over a decade and according to Dozier and museum archivist Donna Miller the majority of the confirmands generally say that they would have left. This group of confirmands went the opposite direction and said that they would have stayed and protested the action, a theme becoming more commonplace in present day society.
“What you saw today was extremely rare,” Miller said. “We generally don’t see that many children saying that they would stay.”
The event as a whole showed the seriousness of the racial divide that existed in the country as far back as the 1700s however it also made the connection to the status of current relationships across racial lines.
Portraying events related to race, especially in front of youths, can be difficult because it is important not to offend anyone who comes to visit the event. However, Dixon believes that the story needs to be told and the only way to do so is to tell it truthfully.
“I think that younger folks should see that it’s not all pretty, history is not as cleaned up as some of the books will tell you,” Dixon said. “We need to know that so that we can say that mistakes were made, mistakes will be made, and what can we learn from them to improve on them and do better for the next generation. Nobody is perfect, and by realizing that together we can improve together.”
There are two rooms on the main floor of St. George’s that are dedicated solely to telling the history of Methodism particularly at the church itself. The museum has historic artifacts from many of the big names in Methodist history including John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, and Francis Asbury, one of the founders of the religion in the United States and third pastor of St. George’s.
The rooms also have more of a local feel with a display about how the Ben Franklin Bridge was forced to change its plans to avoid the church because the building would not be moved, leading to the church becoming known as “the church that moved the bridge.”
“If you are entering Philadelphia on the Ben Franklin, you can thank us for the panhandle at the end of it,” Miller said.
For the past year the room adjacent to the museum has hosted civil rights artwork by artist Bonnie Mettler which fit in nicely with the discussion about racial prejudices in the time traveler event.
Believers of the United Methodist religion are taught about the importance of universal acceptance. The reenactment of Allen’s removal partnered with Mettler’s artworks allow viewers to gain a full grasp on where both the religion and country have come from, while showing that there is still a long way to go.
“We are trying to use the museum as a way of connecting people to the story of how we have evolved as a society,” Miller said. “This place has been here in this city for so long and all of its changes. We also want to make this a center for people to come and talk about racial issues, because of the unique history of it. We have a story that opens the conversation and we don’t want to let that drop.”