Centuries of worship

MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Among the many biblical axioms that the members of Bethany AME Church embody, one bit of conventional wisdom seems to reflect the guiding principle of Holme Circle’s African-American congregation over the last two centuries: “It’s not the numbers that make people great. It’s the quality of the people.”

That quote was among many profound insights presented in a 2009 documentary of the church. The film Standing on the Promises of God was part of the Scribe Video Center’s “Precious Places” series released that year. On May 4, members of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network viewed the film in the house that inspired it — “the little church on the side of the hill,” as members have long called it affectionately.

Officially, the white-washed, wooden-frame structure with the bright red front door sits amid the gravesites of its past congregants at 8898 Ashton Road, just north of Holme Avenue. But the church predates modern address designations. It dates to the pre-Civil War years, when freed slaves acquired modest yet gainful farms in the area and built a community that was known at various times as Harrisburg and Guinea Hill, the latter perhaps a tribute to the West African heritage of its denizens.

With the congregation’s 200th anniversary commemorations in the planning stages and due to hit full stride this fall, a new generation of members led by the pastor Rev. Lois Wilkinson have taken a strong interest in filling the gaps in the church’s own historical records. The NPHN is partnering in that effort and has already begun to uncover some compelling details about one of the Northeast’s earliest black communities.

“It’s fantastic,” Wilkinson said during the May 4 gathering. “I had been praying on how we could connect more with the historical society and with the different races, then I got a letter from Elsie.”

Elsie Stevens, a board member of the Holme Circle Civic Association, had planted a seed in the minds of the local historians that Bethany AME was worth a closer look. Fred Moore, who usually chairs the history group’s informal gatherings, began researching the early Harrisburg residents. So did Northwood’s Joe Menkevich, along with Jack and Patty McCarthy of the Far Northeast. They’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

“I think we’ve made some deep scratches,” Moore said. “I had been wondering about this (Harrisburg) community for a long time and we’re coming in at the right time.”

Although many of the church’s own historical accounts have been lost over time, its founders and early members left their own trails of information in the form of census documents, property records, wills and news clippings.

“We try to go back and find out who the people were and why they were here, because there wouldn’t be a church here if it weren’t for the people,” Moore said.

By all accounts, the congregation was central in the early growth of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded in Philadelphia the Rev. Richard Allen. It is the oldest predominantly black Protestant denomination in the world.

In 1794, Allen led a group of African-Americans who left the predominantly white St. George’s Methodist Church due to discrimination. They formed the Mother Bethel AME Church at Sixth and Lombard streets, which still holds regular services.

Shortly after the turn of the 19th century, census records show that there were several African-American landowners in the vicinity of present-day Ashton Road. They used their accumulated resources to build the second AME church in 1816.

“They were share croppers. They worked hard, saved, stayed together and built a community,” Patty McCarthy said.

Today, the AME church claims 2.5 million members throughout North America, the Caribbean, Africa and South America.

Wilkinson, who hails from Delaware County, considers it an honor to continue the Bethany AME legacy. When she arrived in 2012, there were about 10 active members. Today, the congregation numbers 47, ranging in age from 8 to the mid-80s. They worship at 11 a.m. every Sunday. There’s a men’s choir, a ladies choir, a young men’s choir and an “inspiration choir” comprised of men and women. They take turns performing at weekly services. Wilkinson is particularly focused on the “young men of the future” group for boys 8 to 16.

“I’m trying to get them involved and let them know they’re important,” the pastor said.

The congregation’s new community outreach ministries include a food bank. The church’s doors are always open to visitors.

“I always tell members that when they come in the door, greet them with a smile because first impressions are important, and you treat them with love,” Wilkinson said. ••

For information, visit the Bethany AME Church page on Facebook or call 215–464–8381.

Fred Moore of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network discusses new research into the congregation’s history. The AME church is the oldest predominantly black Protestant denomination in the world. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Keeping the faith: On May 4, congregants viewed the film, Standing on the Promises of God, at Bethany AME Church. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO