there was a time, my friends, that i called the african methodist episcopal zion church (AMEZ) my home. and i am so proud to say that.
that’s right. little ole white american girl me was a member of a passionate, inspiring, welcoming, enlightening, life-changing AMEZ community for about four years.
if you know anything about me, you’ll know that i have a methodist (christian protestant) background and upbringing. my methodism is still part of my spirituality, though i also invite + use other elements of other religions/faiths and non-religions in my spiritual journey.
just 7 short years ago, in addition to working at a united methodist church, i was also studying for my master’s degree in theology at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) seminary.
the AMEZ church was founded in 1796 in new york, as black members in that area separated from the white Methodist Church. (the african methodist episcopal church (AME) was also founded in 1796, but in Pennsylvania, as black members separated from the white Methodist Church. both were founded so that black americans at the turn of the 18th century would have the opportunity to worship in their own way and also set up their own theological schools. both were supported and helped by the white methodist church. all of the theologies and organizations of all three of the churches are fairly similar… seeing as they all 3 rose out of the methodist movement by john wesley in the 1700s. and today all three denominations have made a commitment to work together in ministry.
now, most people in north carolina (where i lived + worked at the time) who want to study theology at a united methodist seminary choose to go to duke university. my granddad did about 70 years ago. and, of course, throughout all of my life i thought hat i had wanted to attend duke also.
but, in order to study there, i would have had to quit my job and relocate, which i wasn’t going to do. however, i had heard a tip from some fellow ministers + pastors about a small AMEZ seminary that had a master’s of divinity degree schedule that worked well for people who worked and needed to commute. same degree. same theology. just a different school.
i looked into it, and after taking just one preliminary class there, i knew with all of my soul that this was where i was meant to be. it was the perfect fit – and believe me, i had visited many different seminaries in the country. it was small, unique, personal, and it felt like i would get to be part of an intimate, motivated grassroots effort – a place where i could explore my faith, expand my spirituality, and be a part of what i knew would be a life-changing experience.
i knew inside that all along i had wanted something a little different. to step outside of the norm. and expand my horizons (and mind) in a whole new way.
so, i decided to leave behind the traditional united methodist seminary and attend this small, historical, black AMEZ seminary. yes, i spent four incredible years studying theology full-time at hood theological seminary in salisbury, north carolina.
to express to you what it was like to attend classes with such a diverse group of people from all backgrounds, races, nationalities and ages would be nearly impossible. just know that, even though hood was a seminary of only a few hundred students, the intimacy + interaction + support that i received from fellow students and our professors was profound. i made deep connections, that even though i may not have much contact with people now, have impacted my life and remain close to my heart.
almost daily i still remember some of the moments and lessons and experiences that i had. times like eating meals with members of all races and discussing racism head-on in light of our faith, of listening to the stories + lives of others, of feeling lost + overwhelmed together as we tackled these complex subjects of faith + life, of hitting the bottom in my own life, only to find that this community of professors + students was there to support me and help me find my way to my own inner peace.
my professors challenged me, and i had the highest of highs when i was awarded the title of theological student of the year. and the lowest of lows, when a professor pushed and challenged and failed me – only to help me see that i was capable of so very much more that i was giving. these highs + lows were life changing. they gave me clarity. they made me a better theologian, minister, and spiritual being.
but, one of the things that i remember and call on most, are the daily worship services that we shared as a community. each student had to preach and lead a community/campus-wide worship service multiple times throughout their studies. this terrified the begeezus out of me in the beginning. preaching for my fellow students and professors blew the freak out of my mind. but, as the years passed, and as i grew in confidence + knowledge, i became someone who loved to share a message of love + grace. i loved standing up in front of people + letting all of the research and studying and meditating i had done come bubbling out of me.
however, it was also about receiving from my fellow classmates + faculty. there were days when a white male student would preach a subdued, yet powerful sermon; and then there were days when a fiery african american woman would have the place rockin’ and singin’ and amen-in’. and i loved how every worship service was different. the ones that crossed cultures + backgrounds + meshed them all together were the best.
but, the real beauty was found in the communion of our hearts + souls.
we may have used different words, or looked differently, or even communicated everything differently, but we were all claiming the same thing: grace and love and peace. harmony and justice and freedom.
it wasn’t just bridging black + white for us. it was about taking it global too. taken in 2007 at the acropolis in athens, greece. a trip i was on for one of my classes at hood.
these days at hood, these experiences at hood, this part of my life that was spent at hood… i was changed. i became a better person. i was transformed and set free. and i had the pure joy of exploring the opportunity to see life through the eyes of others. we all came from such different places and philosophies, and we didn’t always agree. but, we always loved. we always accepted. we always held on to what united us instead of what divided us.
so, when i learned of how the members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in charleston, south carolina have been responding to the deaths of nine of their very own right in their own church, i felt proud. proud to have been a part of this tradition. proud to have been a methodist. proud to have been a student at an AMEZ graduate school.
but, even more than proud, i felt hope.
the outpouring of grace + forgiveness from the members and families has renewed my belief in justice. just four days after the terrorist massacre, the congregation worshiped together in the same church where their loved ones were murdered. and, family members offered words of forgiveness to the killer at his bond hearing on friday. like for real. forgiveness people.
nadine collier, daughter of a victim says, “i forgive you” to the shooter. photo from the new yorker.
the actions of this AME community in charleston have reminded me to never take for granted the deep connection i have with these african denominations of the methodist church – denominations that have carried a message of freedom + hope + liberation since the 1700s. denominations that have been on the front lines of being + living the change that we want to see in the world, of fighting with hope and grace and peace, instead of weapons and fear, for the freedom and rights of people.
this is the power of answering hate with love.
and i am finding myself with tears streaming down my face, asking myself if am i capable of this this kind of mercy and grace. would i respond in the same way?
if you want to know what faith looks like, then look no further, my friends, than the responses of this community of faith after such a horrific tragedy. this is it. this is faith without question. this is living and moving on without understanding, and yet still believing and hoping and trusting. it is coming together, instead of tearing apart. it is looking for solutions, instead of responding with more terror and violence.
this is unfathomable mercy. this is unconditional grace.
it is not possible for me to just sit back and watch what is happening. i must do something. i must join them in their fight, even if i can only fight from afar + with my words.
this is a reminder for me to never lose touch with my own little AMEZ roots. to never forget all that i have learned + experienced. and the best way that i can do that is to live my life as i see these beautiful people in charleston living theirs – even in the midst of pain and suffering and tragedy.
once again, though, i ask myself… what am i going to do? what are we going to do? well, i believe the answer lies in how we live our lives every single day. in how we respond to pain and suffering and tragedy. in how we decide to treat each other.
join me, will you, in letting these strong, inspiring people in charleston set an example for us and challenge us to live life as faithfully, resolutely, and openly as they do.
let’s promise each other to live a life filled with love and hope and justice. deal?
onwards + upwards! xoxo
all of the other photos are from here ( a google image search).