The African American Lifeline
By J. Isaac Noel Benjamin, II
The church has also been a respite for the weary. In times of dire need (slavery), the church was more than just a home away from home. It was a lifeline. Religion and the churches have been at the forefront of mankind’s earliest civilizations. The first church in America was established in 1607. The settlers built the first real church inside of Fort Smith in Arkansas.
It was described as a barn-like structure. It was written that, Jesus did not incarnate in order to establish a church, and he did not counsel his disciples to establish churches. His mission was to proclaim the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the hearts of mankind, and to free mankind from the bondage of churches of authority. According to Orthodox beliefs, Jesus Christ established the Orthodox Church in the year 33 AD, as the first and only Church on earth.
Religious beliefs run deep. So much so, that the concept of separation of church and state seems to have always existed. The phrase separation of church and state originated from Thomas Jefferson on January 1st, 1801. Jefferson used this metaphor in a letter sent to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. Jefferson used the term “wall” to make clear that the government was not to interfere with any religious practice. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the concept of separation of church and state as early as Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879). The Court found that the federal antibigamy statute did not violate the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
In African American history, "the church" has long been at the center of Black communities. The Church has established itself as the greatest source for African American religious enrichment and secular development. In America, the Church was the first source of land ownership for many former slaves. As such, it was widely viewed as the reason and savior of oppressed African people in the United States.
Sometimes, a celebration or recognition is just what the doctor order. The celebration of Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” which was created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American historian, scholar, educator and publisher. It became a month-long celebration in 1976. The month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Lansing has a deep a rich church history. Historically, the Church represents a sense of normalcy in a sea of chaos. The First Methodist Episcopal Church, now Central United Methodist Church is home to Lansing’s oldest church. In 1850, a Methodist congregation was formed in what is now central Lansing. Its first leader was the Rev. Resin Sapp, whose salary was $136, though he also received a salary as chaplain of the Michigan legislature.
In 2002, Russell McReynolds, an African American Lansing, Michigan resident, was the Senior Pastor for Central United Methodist Church. “They thought they had the best of all worlds,” McReynolds said. “The church does a lot of good things for the African American community. For example, they help to raise money to send under-privileged youth to Historical Black Colleges.”
McReynolds also noted that one of Central’s more notable endeavors was there Open Door Ministry. “It lasted for decades and helped a large portion of the community,” he stated.
“This is a really great church to be a member,” he said. Anyone who comes would really like the upbeat spiritual music and the warm and inviting atmosphere.” McReynolds retired as the Senior Pastor in 2007.
The first meeting of Methodists in the Lansing area was in the log cabin of Joab Page in 1845. Meetings were held for the next five years, with a permanent organization, a Methodist Class, being formed in 1850. Rev. Resin Sapp was called as the first pastor. The congregation met in “God’s Barn,” a converted barn in North Lansing purchased from James Seymour in 1848 and shared with the Presbyterians. In 1949, the Methodist group separated, and a Methodist Class began to meet in what was called Middle Town at the new state legislative halls.
The story of the present Central United Methodist Church building begins on April 3, 1848, when the Michigan legislature passed “An Act granting to School Districts and Religious Denominations of Professing Christians, suitable grounds in the Town of (Lansing), owned by the State.” It was necessary for a church to make application within one year. The trustees of the First Methodist Episcopal Church made application on April 17, 1848, and a deed was executed by the payment of $1.00 on June 1, 1850 by the Secretary of State for Lot 6 in Block 96 as suitable and proper. The property was located on the Northwest corner of Washington and Ottawa Streets.
Several longtime members of Central United Methodist Church joined for different reasons. Bryan Halter joined in 1960. “I joined because the church had a good reputation and many community leaders were also members,” he said. “I stayed because I was there.”
Leora Stutes has been a member since 1951. “I joined for me own reasons,” she said. “They had a nursery and a progressive Sunday program. I stayed because I got involved in the church.”
Stutes smiled when she recalled her earliest memories of attending Central was at the age of three. Robert Pena has been a member since the 1980s. He couldn’t recall the exact year he joined. “I original came to Central because I was invited,” he said. “I stayed because it was time to put down roots and it was a great place to get that started. One of my core beliefs,” continued Pena, “is that Central felt like I was there with my brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters are a deeper connection than good friends.”
Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church of Lansing is the oldest black church in the city. Its first services were held in a building on North Washington Avenue. The church formally organized by the Reverend Mr. Henderson of the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1866, was first called the Independent Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1875 it was reorganized as Bethel A.M.E. Church. In 1902, upon the death of the Reverend George R. Collins, the pastor for many years, the church was renamed the George R. Collins A.M.E. Church. It was incorporated in 1906. The church received its present name, Trinity A.M.E. Church, in 1964.
Union Missionary Baptist Church was the first African-American Baptist Church established in the City of Lansing. Union Baptist has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1909, first established as the Hillsdale Street Baptist Church by a small group of worshippers meeting in a living room. The group soon moved its religious services to a small building on the corner of West Main and Division Streets and in 1937 changed the name of the church to “Union Missionary Baptist Church.”
Religious exercises of slaves were closely watched to detect plans for escape or insurrection. African American churches showed an air of militancy in the eyes of white Americans. Insurrections such as Nat Turner's in Virginia, born out of the religious inspiration of slaves, horrified white Americans. Understanding the potential end which could result from the religious experiences of African slaves, many white Americans opposed the participation of Blacks in Christianity. In African American history, "the church" is considered the center of Black communities. It has established itself as the greatest benefit for African Americans who consider religious enrichment and secular development paramount.
This development is embodied in Christianity, and the term, "the Black Church” presents many details of racial and religious lifestyles unique in Black history. "Methodist and Baptist denominations were separate church organizations based upon distinctions of color and what were considered standards of civilized behavior."
Organized politically and spiritually, black churches were not only given to the teachings of Christianity, but they were faithfully relied upon to address the specific issues which affected their members. For many African American Christians, regardless of their denominational differences, Black Churches have always represented their religion, community, and home. Scholars have repeatedly asserted that Black history and Black church history overlap enough to be virtually identical. One of the First known Black churches in America was created before the American Revolution, around 1758. Called the African Baptist or "Bluestone" Church, this house of worship was founded on the William Byrd plantation near the Bluestone River, in Mecklenburg, Virginia. Africans at the time believed that only adult baptism by total immersion was doctrinally correct.
As to the meaning of “Church”, Halter summed it up best.
“The church is a group of people, not a building.”