LI's AME churches celebrate long histories

Casey Bohanon, 31, of Hicksville, is baptized by Casey Bohanon, 31, of Hicksville, is baptized by the Rev. Lisa Williams at Mount Olive AME Church in Port Washington during Sunday service. (Jan. 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Robin L. Dahlberg

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'Amen!" "Yes!" "Mm-hmm!" cried out parishioners of Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church in Port Washington, raising their voices in celebration on a recent Sunday morning.

"God is moving Mount Olive," the Rev. Lisa Williamson told her congregation.

The church had just welcomed two new members, LaTarsha Hudson, 34, and her daughter, Ryann, 7, of Roosevelt, and had baptized three other members: Casey Bohanon, 31, of Hicksville, Linda Pearce, 59, of Jamaica, Queens, and Jennifer Scipio, 56, of Laurelton, Queens.

Mount Olive is a small, beloved church, with about 30 parishioners, located just off Main Street in downtown Port Washington. When asked what makes it special, Gail Jenkins, 64, of Westbury, had a ready answer.

"It is a family," she said. "I started Sunday school here. I was baptized here."

According to another longtime parishioner, Edith Hall, 76, of Port Washington, "It has an open door, an open heart. . . . It is a church with a beautiful tradition, music, people and gospel."

Because Mount Olive is an AME church, that tradition, music and gospel are firmly rooted in African-American history. Richard Allen, a freed slave, founded the first African Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia in 1787, Williamson said. After white members of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia forced him and other freed slaves to pray in a segregated gallery, Allen decided to form a church that had the same beliefs and governing structure as St. George's but that did not engage in racism and discrimination.

Today, there more than 4,000 AME churches worldwide, 21 of which are on Long Island.

Since the early 1800s, AME churches have served as both spiritual and community centers. "We came out of social justice roots," Williamson said, "and we kind of still maintain that. We are heavy into grassroots community outreach."

Mount Olive does not have anything specific planned for Black History Month, but its significance is not lost on parishioners.

For Dyonce Williamson, 12, of West Hempstead, the month "means celebrating people who gave me freedom. . . . Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass."

LaTarsha Hudson said Black History Month "is a time to reflect on those who came before me and what they did. And to think about what I can do."

Two of Long Island's AME churches, St. Paul AME Zion Church in Quogue and St. David AME Zion Church in Sag Harbor, are believed to have been stops on the Underground Railroad, providing shelter and assistance to escaped slaves. After the Civil War, AME churches served as schools and provided for the indigent, the homeless and the incarcerated. During the civil rights movement, they helped African-American communities organize and express their political grievances.

Today, each AME church has an active ministry. Under the leadership of Hall, Mount Olive is helping rebuild two churches destroyed during superstorm Sandy and is partnering with other churches to provide supplies to those displaced by the storm. It has also developed a relationship with a local domestic violence shelter, providing clothing, groceries and Christmas gifts to its residents.

The church is housed in a building that originally served as a boathouse on Port Washington's Mill Pond. The boathouse was donated to Mount Olive at the beginning of the 20th century, and in 1903 it was moved to its current location.

According to a written history prepared in 2011 by the church's former leader, the Rev. Vivian Nixon, Mount Olive was founded in 1897 by members of two of Port Washington's first African-American families: the Biddles and the Dumpsons. The Dumpsons arrived in the area in the 1600s, according to parishioner Holly Dumpson, 55, of Port Washington.

"[The Dumpsons and the Biddles] wanted a family church," recounted Williamson. They wanted a church where the services were "not heavy in liturgy," but during which they could dance, clap and "sing hymns that spoke to their struggle" as African-Americans.

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