“Let your hair down, roll your sleeves up and let’s praise the Lord,” Rev. Allen L. Williams told his congregation at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. Williams had a special reason to rejoice. Last Sunday, he and churchgoers celebrated St. Paul’s 70th anniversary in Berkeley.
“It’s wonderful to have history when you can look back and see what God has done,” Williams said to the Sunday morning worshipers.
The African American Episcopal Church has 7,000 congregations in more than 30 nations, according to the AME Church website, but only one site in Berkeley—St. Paul. It’s a distinction that is a source of pride to many of its members.
Today St. Paul has almost 1,000 members who gather to worship in its $1.5 million sanctuary. But 70 years ago St. Paul was a very different place. Called the Berkeley Mission, the church began with just five members in a modest building at the corner of Grove and Russell streets.
By 1935 the church boasted more than 70 members and the following year moved into a larger building at 1630 Fairview St. In 1937, the church received official incorporation from the African Methodist Episcopal church and became St. Paul.
In 1953, St. Paul moved to its current location at 2024 Ashby Ave. and in 1995 a wing was added to the church to accommodate a growing congregation and multiple community outreach programs.
Many of St. Paul’s members, like Sarah Robinson, have been a part of the church for decades. Robinson has been a member for 29 years. She said that while St. Paul has seen different pastors and different members, different locations and different music over the years, no matter how St. Paul changes, she’s not going anywhere.
“I am dedicated to this church,” Robinson said. “This is my church.”
Doris Tabor, 85, echoed Robinson’s sentiment. Tabor has been a member of St. Paul since 1943, and is known around the church as “Granma Tabor.” In her Ward Street home in Berkeley, Tabor has boxes of old pictures and yellowed programs from services that date back as far as the 1960s.
Tabor said she has never once thought about leaving St. Paul. “It has been a haven,” she said, adding that St. Paul gives people a chance to worship God through self-expression.
At St. Paul, self-expression often means singing and dancing. On the church’s 70th anniversary, St. Paul members worshiped God throughout the Sunday service with music and movement.
“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it,” the choir sang as churchgoers stood to their feet and clapped their hands. Dancers moved through the aisles dressed in black leotards and long skirts with their waists wrapped in Afro-centric fabric.
But St. Paul members are quick to make it known that their church is not just about singing, dancing and preaching on Sunday mornings. Doris Floyd, Tabor’s daughter and a lifelong member of St. Paul, said they are proud of their church mostly because of what it has meant to the Berkeley community.
“We can’t just do our work within our walls,” said Floyd, who works as the church’s public-relations officer. “Patting ourselves on the back about what we did in the church just won’t do it.”
In a proclamation of recognition that Berkeley gave to the church on Sunday, city officials praised St. Paul for feeding 5,000 people each year through its Tuesday Community Feeding Program, a service that gives free meals to the hungry and homeless in Berkeley.
“Part of the AME creed is to feed the hungry,” Floyd said.
According to the official website for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME church was started in the late 1700s. The first congregation, Bethel, was started in Philadelphia and led by a former slave, pastor Richard Allen, from Delaware. Allen and others began organizing the church after officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church didn’t allow blacks to participate in services.
The AME Church has about two million members today. Some of the AME Church’s missions include “feeding the hungry,” “clothing the naked” and “housing the homeless.”
Floyd said St. Paul is also committed to helping youth in the community. For example, in the late 1980s, after some members noticed that some black students in Berkeley city schools were not performing well on standardized tests, St. Paul developed a Saturday school program that offered free tutoring to students in various subjects, including mathematics and language.
“Our kids were slipping through the cracks,” Floyd said. The program continued through the 1990s until the church began to develop other education programs like the Academic Center for Excellence. This program, which St. Paul runs through a partnership with the University of California Office of the President, aims to prepare high school students for college, Floyd said.
“Our youth are our most precious commodity,” Floyd said.
Floyd said St. Paul is even taking on issues that have traditionally been considered taboo in the church. St. Paul has a Teen Pregnancy Prevention/Teen Parenting program that works on preventing teen pregnancy by teaching abstinence through health education and programs that seek to build self-esteem. The program also offers help for teen parents.
“The church is not there to condemn people for whatever choices they make,” Floyd said. “But we are here to be an education center.”
St. Paul also has an HIV/AIDS Awareness program and hosts a Narcotics Anonymous group that meets every Saturday, Floyd said.
“In St. Paul there has always been a willing spirit to help,” Floyd said. She added, however, that St. Paul’s commitment to outreach is one that has evolved over time.
“We’ve moved more toward meeting the needs of the community,” she said. And to meet those needs, Floyd said, St. Paul has had to become more contemporary in various areas—even down to the type of music played during Sunday morning services. Floyd said services at St. Paul have traditionally been more quiet and subdued. But now, St. Paul has a music ministry that has musicians who play everything from the flute and saxophone to drums and bass.
Granma Tabor said sometimes she wishes the choir would sing more traditional hymns like the ones she grew up singing. “But everybody wants to move,” she said of the church’s younger generation of members, who want more upbeat music. “I have to remind myself not to be jealous just because I can’t move,” she said laughing.
Tabor said she doesn’t really mind the changes, because she knows they’re necessary to keep the church alive.
One change that Tabor is excited about is St. Paul’s newly appointed pastor. Tabor got up extra early on the morning of Nov. 16, the day Williams gave his first sermon as St. Paul’s pastor.
“My body felt like it was a cushion and my aches felt they was pins,” she said. “But I just wanted to be there when Reverend Williams came back for his first service.”
Becoming pastor of St. Paul was a sort of homecoming for Williams, who attended the church when he was a young boy while his father, E.P. Williams, served as pastor in the early 1960s.
Tabor said she’s delighted to see Williams follow in his father’s footsteps and feels that with his return, great and new things are going to happen in the church.
Last week Williams was busy visiting the sick, preparing for the church’s annual revival and anniversary celebration and planning a trip back to Kansas City to complete his move from that city to Berkeley. Yet he still managed to kick off St. Paul’s new radio ministry. The Abundant Light Radio Ministry will broadcast on KYDA 1190 AM on Saturdays from 10:30 to 11 a.m.
Williams said he hopes listeners will be inspired by the Saturday broadcast and motivated to visit St. Paul the following morning.
Floyd said this is just one example of how Williams plans to increase St. Paul’s community outreach. She said he also plans to develop a program to help find permanent housing for the homeless individuals that the church serves.
On Sunday, Williams asked his congregation to pray for him and his family and be patient as he gets settled in his new role. He said he might do some things differently from former pastors such as the order of service. Williams and his congregation seemed to stumble through parts of the service, unsure if the collection of tithes and offering was to come before church announcements or not.
“Will you bear with me?” Williams asked. “Yes,” the congregations answered in unison.
“I promise it won’t be uncomfortable for long,” Williams said and then urged the crowd to be excited about what the future holds.
“I believe,” Williams said to Sunday’s crowd “that the best is yet to come.”