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Churches enable UM legacy in city

August 1, 2017

By Melissa Lauber
UMConnection Staff

Established 245 years ago, Centennial Caroline Street UMC was the oldest African-American Church in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. But for United Methodists, who build their faith on resurrection, the closing of this 245-year-old congregation has opened up a legacy of new ministry in Baltimore.

In November 2016, a faithful remnant of members chose to close the church and began worshipping with St. Matthews-New Life UMC. The month of December was designated as a time of mourning, and the Rev. Andrew Briscoe Jr. honored the accomplishments of this historic congregation.

The church was formed on June 22, 1772, the same day as Lovely Lane UMC, which is often called the Mother Church of Methodism. Centennial UMC formed as a black congregation, under the original name of Dallas Street Methodist Episcopal Church. It merged with the historic bi-racial Caroline Street UMC in 1985, under the leadership of the Rev. Mamie Williams.

As part of remembering, the 26 Centennial-Caroline members brought artifacts, like a baptismal font, Bible, and candlesticks from their sanctuary to place in their new church home. Since the new year, 23 of them have joined St. Matthew’s-New Life.

St. Matthews-New Life was chosen as Centennial-Caroline’s landing place, in part, because Briscoe had a relationship with them. As a student at Wesley Theological Seminary, he did his practice of ministry program at Centennial Caroline.

Briscoe and Conference leaders made sure the people’s “futures were not being planned for them,” he said, and that they were participants in shaping a living legacy of ministry.

“We didn’t read them in as members,” Briscoe said. “We gave them the right hand of fellowship, creating a new litany so that our body would welcome them in a way that was not belittling to them. We did not want to make them feel ‘other.’ We welcomed them as family.”

Part of this welcome included grafting the leadership structures of the two churches together. Briscoe told those coming into St. Matthews-New Life, “You’re not a new member. Don’t sit on the side and figure out how to do things. Your voice counts. … They’re starting to embrace that,” he said.

Some from Centennial-Caroline Street have told him, “We didn’t know we were lacking so much until coming here and being a part of this vibrant life.”

Part of that vibrancy, Briscoe and other church members said, stems from the fact that St. Matthews and New Life were both churches that chose to give up their struggle with diminishing numbers of members to create something new.

In January, St. Matthews and New Life celebrated their anniversary. 

Looking back, they admitted there is real pain in deconsecrating a building. They had to opt to not just think of the merger as adding to St. Matthews’ membership. Church leaders realized both congregations had to die so that something new and vibrant could be created in its place.

But that’s not even the origin of the legacy of creating possibility and growth out of decline. New Life, an innovative African- American faith community, was created in 1996 from the closing of Parkside UMC, a predominantly white church that lost members as the demographics of Baltimore City changed.

“This is a model that only God can create,” Briscoe said.

Denise Washington, a lay leader, attributes the vibrancy of a church choosing ministry over history and buildings to the fact that “the Word is being taught and preached.” There is noon-day and evening Bible study, she said. “People’s relationships with God change. They begin to think and handle themselves differently.”

In the hallway outside his office, a boy named Herman approaches Briscoe and asks, “Does the Bible really have the essence of everything?”

It’s a random question, but Briscoe makes a note to have a deeper conversation with Herman when he finds time. “There’s something to this,” Briscoe said.

Young adults, children and youth, middle age people and seniors are all present, in just about proportional numbers, as everyone finds their place at Centennial Caroline.

For Anthony Howard, who graduated from high school last spring, church is a place to go “to get off the streets. I live in a bad neighborhood – Greenmount Avenue,” he said. “There’s violence, fighting, people arguing.”

At the church, Howard works with the audio-visual and technological aspects of worship.

Briscoe is familiar with the church as a place of refuge. He grew up at Eastern UMC, which recently sold its building. There, in the mid 1990s, he experienced Bishop Felton May’s Saving Stations ministry and learned about servant leadership from the Rev. Constance Smith.

That spirit of the Saving Stations, “where the church loved the hell out of Baltimore,” is alive at St Matthews-New Life, where 43 young people are participating in a summer arts camp. Assisting with the camp, and doing work around the church this summer are more than 50 youth who Baltimore City is paying as part of a summer jobs program.

The building is bursting at its seams — with the summer camp and between 120 and 140 in worship each Sunday.

The building has recently experienced an extensive renovation, updating the narthex and hallways, and completely redoing the sanctuary, which hadn’t been touched since 1971. 

The restoration sprung from a leak in the roof, explained Curtis Moore, a church trustee. It was an opportunity to bring the worship space to life and provide a flexible meeting space for church and community ministries.

The pews were removed and the sanctuary was made brighter and more beautiful. “We didn’t have the money,” Moore said. “God provided.”

The church is continuing to grow, with ministries like Hotdog for a Handshake, which draws people into the church, and Boots on the Block, a prayer-walk ministry, which Moore participates in.

“It a wonderful feeling to give back some of what God has given me,” he said.

Having outgrown their current facility, Briscoe and the Board of Trustees are considering what ministries might be done with the former Pikeside UMC building, which has 18 classrooms, three offices and a sanctuary that seats 500.

The building has been assessed at $1.7 million, out of the range of some interested buyers. Briscoe envisions it as a community center and second worship site. The congregation at Centennial -Caroline is exploring how this building might be its own legacy of ministry.

Briscoe isn’t certain what the future might hold, but possibilities keep coming, he said.

“We’ve got to be flexible and keep being honestly concerned about the community. That’s what grows a church.”

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