Look At God
A recent query on my perspective regarding commissioning gave pause for some reflection. The question is asked of ministry candidates during the discernment process for ordained ministry. My response, in hindsight, failed to capture the deep connect in my ministry calling to the great work God began in 1871 at my home church, St. Paul UMC in Winston-Salem. The church is the second oldest African American congregation in the city. St. Paul celebrates its 150th anniversary this May. The first outreach ministry was education.
A paragraph from the 1999 Methodist Conference report, “The Essence of Education” reads:
"The educated person is one who has most nearly attained the potential which he or she has it within them to become, morally, culturally, and spiritually as well as intellectually and
physically…. Education is not ultimately about training people to be clever or successful, but about discovering what it is to be the full human beings God intended us to be.”
Our anniversary theme, Look At God recalls words from Jeremiah, For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer 29:11). Our baptismal covenant as Methodists charges each of us to respond in the present age to the hurting and lost. In doing so, we help those we encounter know who they are in Christ. An 1870 newspaper clipping highlights St. Paul’s first pastor began as a Circuit Rider, preaching tent revivals in the months prior to the church officially organizing for Bible study under a brush arbor. The relationships forged during those meetings undoubtedly brought hope for a new and different life through learning and understanding the gospel texts while mastering how to read it.
By the turn of the century, the African American population in Winston-Salem thrived with the expanding tobacco industry. The community flourished because of the church, and education was integral to this growth. The NC legislature recognized a need for schools. Laws were enacted creating separate spaces for whites and blacks to learn. State funding fell short in building schoolhouses for African Americans. St. Paul, as well as other black churches used available space for schoolhouses. Just as the church responded to a community need at its beginnings, the pandemic over the past year gave cause for the church to yet again offer its space to a new generation at the urging of local school officials.
Opening the church to stem the harm caused by learning losses due to school closures was not just in our heritage, but part of God’s ongoing salvation work and justice through the church.
While tempting, focusing on the modest academic gains achieved at the church learning center by participants would miss the growth in love of self and neighbor by students, parents, tutors, teachers and social workers served by our outreach. Welcoming 21 students, and 12 site tutors, (many of whom were young adults) we tackled issues including: self- esteem, cultural bias and grief. The school team assigned to assist families in need of learning assistance would find themselves asking, “Can St. Paul take any more students?”
This garnered trust extended to community partnerships formed prior to the pandemic. St. Paul had unique features such as bicycles for every student to ride daily after school. This generous gift opened a door to shed needed positive light on law enforcement through a bike patrol unit at a time when students struggled to discern trusting and relating to people in authority of another race. The choice by tutors and students to spread the good news of their experiences at St. Paul with others and remain at the church site even as schools reopened can only be summarized by simply exclaiming, Look At God.
As I continue my journey towards ordination, St. Paul’s history stands a reminder of the stories within each of our churches of God’s faithfulness when we heed our call to walk in the charge we are all tasked to keep. Bishop Tremble of the Iowa Conference will deliver an anniversary message Sunday, May 16 at 11:00 am. I invite you to visit us online at www.stpaulumcws.org, join the celebration, and be inspired to Look at God.
Historical references are from St. Paul church records and the book “African Americans in Winston Salem and Forsyth County” by Linwood Davis, William Rice and James McLaughlin.
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