In the Bible, the city of Zoar was a place of refuge where Lot took his daughters after the destruction of Sodom. Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church in Philadelphia has also served as a refuge for more than 220 years.
(Choir sings) “We are marching in the light of God.”
Betty Henderson, Member, Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church: “We came out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. And the name ‘Mother’ is significant because we birthed five other churches.”
For 220 years, Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church has nurtured her community. Zoar served African Americans in Philadelphia as a stop on the Underground Railroad; the first well-baby clinic for African Americans; a school; and a source of credit for home loans.
Betty Henderson: “We have a long history of being conscious of educational needs, social needs and the economic development of our community.”
Betty Henderson is a lay leader and the church’s chief historian.
Betty Henderson: “Francis Asbury did the service of institutionalizing or forming of Zoar. The early pastors were assigned to Zoar through St. George’s.”
The story started in 1787.
(Reenactor yells) “The board met last night and they decided, move now!”
(Reenactor speaks as Richard Allen) “A little more than 200 years ago, in this gallery, in this very church from which the walls and floors were crafted with our own hands, we were humiliated.”
The rift led some to leave. Others like those who would later start Mother Zoar, stayed because of the denomination’s support for the abolition of slavery and commitment to ministering to the marginalized.
Betty Henderson: “We were the remnant that remained and stayed within the fold of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”
The Rev. Robert Johnson: “We call it the ‘Mother Church’ or ‘Mother’s House’ because those were the ones who really started the African-American movement and empowerment. We’ve never left. It’s kind of strange to me even now. We’re sitting in a product of the folk who stayed. Because we stayed, this was built.”
(Congregation prays) “One God, who lives and reins forever and ever. Amen.”
As with all historic churches, over two centuries Mother Zoar has seen times of decline and of renaissance. But her presence remains a comfort to her community.
Betty Henderson: “Even though people are not coming to institutional churches as they did, it is still key to bringing a community together. And if something goes wrong, the first place they come is to the church. It’s still vital in the African-American community.”
(Congregation sings) “Let us find our rest in thee.”
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