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LI historic black churches pass torch to millennials

New generation of AME leaders emphasize community service and social activism over choirs.

Jackson Memorial AME Zion Church usher Ashley Brown,

Jackson Memorial AME Zion Church usher Ashley Brown, left, with trustee board member Cherice Vanderhall Wilson and her son Dean, and pastor, the Rev. Malcolm Byrd.      Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

For millennial Ashley Brown, returning to the pews at Jackson Memorial AME Zion Church in Hempstead has been less about making joyful noise in the choir than creating change in her community.

“I’m really not a singer, but community service is an integral part of my experience at Jackson Memorial,” Brown, 28, of Hempstead, said on a recent Saturday as she sat in the sanctuary, surrounded by stained glass windows depicting Black History Month heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

As the leading edge of millennials approaches 40, many like Brown are stepping into leadership roles at Long Island’s historic African-American churches, signaling a passing of the torch to the next generation. Choirs are being phased out and energies are being redirected to social activism, said the Rev. Malcolm Byrd, 35, who leads services at Jackson Memorial.

“They [millennials] want to know how your church is helping to make life easier for a single mother or father in Hempstead, for the homeless, and beyond that, issues of economic empowerment,” said Byrd.

Their generational stamp can be seen in community service programs, trustee boards — even the traditional hymnbooks of AME Zion and African Methodist Episcopal churches. Church programs nowadays include a credit union for parishioners.

Millennials currently comprise about 40 percent of Jackson Memorial’s 400-member congregation, whose members live throughout Nassau County and in Suffolk. About half that number fills the pews at Sunday 11 a.m. services led by Byrd.

Brown’s parents were married at Jackson Memorial, she was baptized there as a child and its Sunday sermons taught her about historically black educational institutions such as Howard University in Washington. D.C., where she received a bachelor of arts degree in political science. After serving from 2015 to 2017 in the Peace Corps, teaching English and Black History to children in Kosovo in Eastern Europe, Brown returned to the congregation where she works with younger parishioners and serves as an usher.

“I want to see the church flourish,” said Brown, a development coordinator for the 1199 SEIU/Employer Child Corporation in Manhattan. “It’s a very deep connection.”

Younger parishioners say they’re drawn by the church’s activist roots. The AME Zion Church was founded in 1796 by black Christians who broke away from their Manhattan Methodist congregation after being forced to take Communion on a different Sunday than whites, said Byrd, the national church’s unofficial historian.

Jackson Memorial opened its doors in 1820, and like other early Long Island AME Zion churches was an Underground Railroad hideout for slaves escaping Long Island bondage, which ended with emancipation in New York State in 1827. Urban renewal erased all traces of the secret rooms, Byrd said, but not the tradition of helping those in need. 

“Millennials use the church as a way to talk about civil rights and organize around issues,” said Cherice Vanderhall Wilson, 38, of Baldwin, a Hempstead village attorney, and the church trustee board’s youngest member. Vanderhall Wilson was baptized at Jackson Memorial and attends services there with her mother. Vanderhall Wilson has set up free law and tax grievance clinics for community members.

James Garner, a former Hempstead Village major who serves on the church trustee board, welcomes input from younger worshippers such as Vanderhall Wilson. Millennials, he said, “have really stepped up to the plate. They are not afraid to make decisions and assume leadership.”   

At Naomi Temple AME Zion Church in Roosevelt, “they bring new creativity and the use of social media and technology,” said the Rev. Andrew Branch, pastor. Two millennial churchgoers chaired the committee planning a women’s day celebration and Sunday service in October.

“In some instances our churches have small memberships, but we do have people under 40 entering leadership roles such as working as officers of the church,” said the Rev. Keith Harris, presiding elder for the Long Island District of the AME Zion Church, which includes 17 congregations from Great Neck to Greenport.

However, at other historically black congregations on Long Island, adjusting to the millennial wave has been more of a struggle, leaders say.

“The millennials are in a different mindset because of the way they have been trained and taught,” said the Rev. Henrietta Fullard, Long Island District presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a separate Protestant denomination founded in Philadelphia in the late 18th century. Fullard said that instead of filling pews at the district’s 16 Long Island congregations including the Bethel AME Churches in Freeport and Copiague, millennials are streaming worship services online.

Fullard said that to make live church services more relevant to millennials, some AME churches are opening their hymnbooks to the contemporary Christian hymns spun on K-Love (96.7 FM).

“That’s going to be the wave of the future, when we embrace their music,” Fullard said.

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