Members of John Wesley United Methodist Church in historic downtown Lewisburg are like family.
They laugh as they reminisce about Mrs Cabell, a former teacher and church organist who would spy on them from the mirror of the pipe organ, then call them to school on Monday mornings for misbehaving on the pews.
They smile as they explain how their tradition of “exchanging peace” – the hugs and greetings they gave to each other and to any visitor during the pre-Covid worship service – was a difficult habit to break. break down when the pandemic hit.
They shake their heads remembering when they and the other kids in their old neighborhood, Gospel Hill, knew they had better be back on their side of town by 10 p.m. and could buy a hot meal in a brown paper bag – if they knew the right white people to meet at the back doors of downtown restaurants right around the corner from their church.
They speak with a mixture of pride and horror as they point out what was once a steep exterior staircase, a slave entrance leading to the gallery where some members today imagine their ancestors may have learned many of the same hymns musically. gifted choirmasters today.
They sit on the same curved pews where those ancestors’ owners sang of love and grace, just across a church entrance that people of their color weren’t even allowed to use.
They stomp on narrow, creaking 201-year-old planks. If these signs could talk – and some think they can, in some way – it could tell a story that no one walking on them today can even begin to understand. It’s a story where somehow, in the worst of circumstances, grace floated through a gallery of slaves and planted a seed that grew generation after generation, so deeply rooted that even a Civil War cannonball could not shake its foundations.
“We know where we come from and we can look back. Sometimes we can even feel that presence,” says Sandra Wilmer, trustee and chair of the church’s board of directors. “But for me, it’s God who brought us here, and it’s worth it.”
If they look back far enough, they read the story of Bishop Francis Asbury, a Methodist pioneer, holding a conference in Lewisburg in 1771. Less than a decade later, Methodists built a “church house on what is now Foster Street. (At the time, it was German Street.) This building was later sold and turned into a dwelling known to local historians as the McWhorter House.
In 1820, construction of the current building at 350 E. Foster St. began on a donated property. Local masons burned bricks and joined them with clay mortar to form the colonial-style structure with a domed bell tower on the roof.
In 1828, although the structure remained firm, the larger church struggled and a group withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Methodist Protestant Church. It wouldn’t be the last division. In 1844, the issue of slavery once again divided the church – this time into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South. Foster Street Church remained Methodist Episcopal, and a Southern Methodist Episcopal Church—which defended slavery—was built at Washington and Church streets.
According to this original document, the church had an Epworth League, a young adult organization within the Methodist Episcopal Church that was formed in 1889. John Wesley’s was part of the Staunton District within the Washington Conference . The league is named after the village of Epworth in Lincolnshire, England, the birthplace of John and Charles Wesley.
In May 1862, Confederate troops were camped just a hundred yards east of John Wesley ME Church. On the morning of May 22, Union forces began shelling the Confederate camp. The story goes that a Union cannon broke off its mount and missed its target. Instead, it hit the church, which served as a hospital. The scars remain.
In 1939 – when the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South, the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church united to form the Methodist Church – segregation still loomed in the form of a separate central jurisdiction for conferences black. But in April 1968, in Dallas, Texas, that changed. The Methodist Church united with the United Evangelical Brethren to form the United Methodist Church, with no separate jurisdiction for black churches.
By 1974, all traditionally black conferences had merged with regional conferences, and it was at this time that John Wesley UMC members began a church restoration project, embracing their heritage and history with the financial assistance of the West Virginia Antiquities Committee.
“When I think of about 200 years ago, when I look at the masonry, the construction, it’s beautiful,” says Mike Burns, new chairman of the church trustees.
He admits that a 201-year-old building — even one that underwent restoration in the 1970s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — comes with its fair share of physical issues.
“But the material that was used when it was built – a part that you can’t even get today,” he says admiringly. “These are materials that last longer than anything we use today. That’s why this church has been standing for so long and in such good shape. But there are things to fix. The things we work on to get the job done. …
“The spirit here is from our ancestors to us and hopefully moving on,” Burns says. “It is a blessing to be able to say that our doors are always open.”
“Everyone here wears a triple hat,” adds Wilmer. “It’s been like that since we were kids. People just enjoyed and honored the church grounds.
And they liked and honored each other.
“When I walked through those doors, even as a child, I could still feel the spirit of that church, like God was here,” says Beverly White, trustee and lay leader. “This is sacred ground.”
It’s one of the things Wilmer missed during the decades she lived in another state.
“I have never found another church that can match the feeling I get when I walk through those doors,” she said.
This feeling may have something to do with the historic building and the spirits of the past they often say they feel, but it’s more than that.
“It’s the people,” says Rosalyn Lee, outgoing chair of the trustees. “The people make the church. And there is no criticism here. Just love.
“And maybe the food,” she adds with a laugh.
Pastor Eugene Fullen agrees.
“When I first came here, I was received with the love we talk about,” Fullen says, noting that his own skin is not the same color as many of those he worships with. “…My wife and I have become part of this very sacred place. There’s a pain here that they can feel, that I can’t feel the same way. But we can all see the love and the teaching that has been given in this church. We really have this policy of open doors, open hearts, open minds, and I don’t have to preach that. It was here when I came here.
“We know what it’s like to be discriminated against,” Lee says, “and we would never want anyone to feel that way.”
“Africans, whites, women, men, Indians, everyone,” says Wilmer. “They are welcome here, and they come here. We have open minds, open hearts, and we live that creed every day.
As they remember their own history, having grown up in the 1960s, they do so with affection for their church and their friends, and with sadness for the racism that was part of their reality.
“These people who were cruel to us, their children and our children are the best of friends, so they learn,” Lee says. “It was like that. There was discrimination. But this community has grown, learned, seen, evolved. And we continue to learn. Every day I learn something new and I’m 68 years old.
As far back as they are, this church family recognizes that growth is still needed, outside their doors and within them. Like other congregations, they are concerned about the lack of young adults in the church, and they are concerned about their community — a community that, despite its small-town charm, still lacks Black-owned businesses and offers little. employment opportunities for their grandchildren.
“Yeah, there’s that ancestral thing. Slavery,” Lee said. “And they had a day of rest and a day of worship. God was your way out of the hard times you had. God, education. And that was the meeting place. That was the teaching they had, that we need to show ourselves how to live our lives with open minds, open hearts. And it was anchored in us by song, by actions, by worship.
(This article originally appeared in the West Virginia United Methodist Church newsletter.)