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Church a beacon to follow

February 03, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

If reflection upon one's history is a luxury, it may be one that many in downtown Hagerstown's predominantly black Jonathan Street community feel they cannot always afford.

"There are more pressing needs in their day-to-day lives," said the Rev. Yvonne Mercer-Staten, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church at 155 N. Jonathan St.

"We're talking about going to war and there are already little wars raging all around us," she said. "There are some wonderful families and individuals in this community, but there are some nights this street is a war zone."

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It is difficult to appreciate the past when you're struggling to feed your family, pay your bills and sleep through the sounds of drug traffic, Mercer-Staten said.

"In the scheme of things," she said, "history doesn't seem too important."

Nevertheless, for four Sundays in this, Black History Month, Mercer-Staten will help parishioners at the 185-year-old church recapture at least a sliver of their rich but often painful heritage.

The energetic pastor might tell the 60 to 70 black parishioners and mixed race couples who regularly attend Sunday services at the church about its birth at the hands of a prominent white Methodist.

Oral history says that Englishman Francis Asbury asked his followers to provide a church for black believers in Hagerstown after he witnessed blacks being pulled from the communion rail during one of his visits in the late 18th century. A white woman from Baltimore is said to have donated money to purchase the land on which the church now stands, Mercer-Staten said.

Asbury opened its doors to the surrounding black community in 1818, when it was organized as a mission church overseen by St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church. St. Paul's provided white preachers and male trustees whose presence was required for the church's black officers to conduct any kind of business.

"The church couldn't even meet unless there was a white overseer present," Mercer-Staten said.

Members of St. Paul's deeded Asbury to a board of black men, ending the white church's oversight, when a new Asbury United Methodist was built in 1879. Oppressive conditions continued, however, as blacks were barred from many businesses, jobs and schools.

That aspect of black history is sometimes easier to forget, said Carolyn Brooks, a member of Asbury United Methodist Church.

"It's easier sometimes to be apathetic because it hurts too much to peel off those layers," she said.

Jonathan Street itself personifies part of the past and the pain. The short stretch through downtown Hagerstown was the only city community in which, as late as the 1960s, blacks were permitted to live.

Asbury United Methodist Church, the county's oldest place of worship for blacks, symbolizes both the Jonathan Street community's heritage and its residents' struggle to preserve it.

"Can you imagine how many souls sat and were saved in these pews?" asked Mercer-Staten, pointing to the original wooden pews in the church balcony.

Asbury still has its original prayer rail and stained glass windows fronting Jonathan Street, but the old windows are buckling under the weight of the centuries. The church's sagging ceiling, cracked plaster, outdated plumbing and wiring and mismatched stained glass windows tell the story of a community at large without the money to preserve one of its oldest structures.

"There is a great need for ministry in this community, but the struggle has always been finding the resources," Mercer-Staten said. "We struggle from week to week, day to day. Survival is our primary issue."

Church officials sold many of the original stained glass windows - which were damaged in a 1972 fire - to help pay operating expenses, Mercer-Staten said. She once duct-taped the sanctuary's frayed carpet seams so she wouldn't trip as she preached among the congregation, she said.

The church community eventually gathered enough money for new carpet and a shingle roof. They added a better sound system and a wheelchair ramp.

"We've funded just about everything we've done here," Mercer-Staten said.

Funds that could have been used for preservation have been directed instead to outreach services for the Jonathan Street community. Asbury hosts clothing and food banks, children's after-school programs, a neighborhood Girl Scout troop and smoking-cessation classes.

Between 25 and 30 neighborhood children participate in the church's after-school homework club three days each week, and at least 30 young people share hot meals at Asbury once a week, Mercer-Staten said.

"You can't feed people spiritually when they're starving to death," she said. "Ministry is helping a little girl make the honor roll for the first time, or helping someone who's addicted to drugs and alcohol turn their life around. One person at a time, we have to pick people up right where they are and build upon that."

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