News and Views

Pilgrimages offer opportunity for growth and exploration

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On a cold, snowy Saturday in March, an intrepid group of 17 United Methodist Men and their spouses from Severna Park United Methodist Church In Severna Park set out for a mini-pilgrimage in Baltimore.

Ready and excited to explore the roots of denominational history, the pilgrims arrived at Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, just steps away from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and were greeted by the Rev. Bonnie McCubbin, the Director of Museums & Pilgrimage for The Baltimore-Washington Conference and pastor of Old Otterbein UMC.

Here, the pilgrims journeyed back to 1771 and imagined what it was like to plant the First Reformed Church of Harold’s Hill, a German-language Reformed Church adjacent to the Baltimore Harbor. They learned about ballast brick, the role of Bishop William Otterbein in transforming the church into the Mother Church of the United Brethren in Christ denomination in 1800; and heard stories about the early years. There was an opportunity to listen to the 1789 bells, cast by the same foundry as the Liberty Bell, visit Bishop Otterbein’s grave, and to view the 1897 Nieman organ that has been fully restored.

While exploring this airy sanctuary painted light blue and full of natural light, the pilgrims also wrestled with questions of immigration. The congregation was founded by immigrants, for immigrants. Part of a pilgrimage experience is to take history and make it relevant to the present. Then the group walked through the beautiful gardens to visit the site of the cabin of Bishop Otterbein before heading to their vehicles for their next stop.

On the way to the next stop, the cars drove past the site of the original Lovely Lane Meetinghouse where the Christmas Conference was held in 1784 to establish the Methodist Episcopal Church. Today, a modern building stands in that location, but a plaque is on the wall. The cars also drove past the modern iteration of St. John’s United Methodist Church, the Mother Congregation of the Methodist Protestant strand of our denomination.

While the building and location of the current congregation is different from where it was initially founded, it still stands as a legacy to the founders who believed so strongly in lay representation and the ability to have influence over an appointment, that they felt they had no choice but to separate from the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Rev. McCubbin next led the group through the Lovely Lane Museum & Archives where the story of the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church is told. The pilgrims were able to get an overarching view of how the Methodist Episcopal Church came into being through the eyes of John Wesley, Robert Strawbridge, and Bishop Francis Asbury. They saw the extensive collection of objects that includes Bishop Asbury’s ordination certificate, signed by Bishop Thomas Coke; Robert Strawbridge’s pulpit; and original writing from Susanna Wesley, among other things. They were able to ring the Cokesbury College bell too.

From the museum and library space, the pilgrims journeyed up one flight of steps to the Lovely Lane United Methodist Church sanctuary where Susan Preston, a lay member of Lovely Lane, shared with the group about the architecture of the building and the influence of Rev. Dr. John Goucher, the founder of Goucher College on the church and location.

While in the sanctuary, their eyes drifted around to view the names of the pastors of the church listed on the windows and large plaques on walls painted deep earthy tones. They sat in restored seats made of dark wood. Then the pilgrims gazed upward at the domed ceiling painted to match the night sky on the day the sanctuary opened — November 6, 1887. Designed to be a centennial monument to the denomination, the current building of Lovely Lane Church is the fifth location of the congregation that first met at what is now Old Otterbein UMC in 1772 under the leadership of Rev. Joseph Pilmore.

The pilgrims set off again, headed to Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, the Mother Church of Black Methodism to learn from Pamela Coleman, a lay member of the congregation and Church historian. The location of the first meeting of the Washington Conference, the historically back segregated conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the congregation is still active today in their second location.

While standing in this historic sanctuary built by hand by escaped and freed former slaves, the pilgrims marveled at the balcony that is an architectural masterpiece — there isn’t a single beam holding it up! As their eyes drifted up to the balcony, the group noticed the angels flying near the ceiling, painted in a variety of skin tones, because this sanctuary was built for everyone to feel comfortable. The walls are still speaking today.

This congregation was the birthplace of the NAACP in Baltimore, hosting meetings for over 40 years. Many famous families claimed Sharp Street as their spiritual home, including the Jackson Family. Sharp Street founded the Centenary Bible Institute, the forerunner to today’s Morgan State University. And several bishops, including retired Bishop Forest Stith, and current Western Pennsylvania Bishop Cynthia Moore Koikoi, have served or had family serve as pastor to the congregation.

The pilgrims left the sanctuary and headed to the museum and archival center where they learned about how the congregation provided shelter and job training for those who needed a new start after the World Wars. They also got to see pictures and artifacts from the Washington Conference.

Because of the weather, the pilgrims were not able to go to the Bishop’s Lot at Mt. Olivet cemetery where Bishop Asbury, early Methodist Jesse Lee, Missionary E. Stanley Jones, and others are buried.

In reflecting on the day, Bob Wimbrow, a member of Severna Park UMC and officer in the UMM, said, “we were especially interested that so many strands of Methodism were eventually combined into the church we know today.” He continued, “Our group had nothing but positive responses about our Mini-Pilgrimage. It is always important to value history, and we were able to see the birthplaces of Methodism. Looking at the faith of those founders and their commitment to forming a new denomination has a positive impact on our own faith and our attitude toward serving. Many of our group also commented on the fellowship we could share.”

The Baltimore mini-pilgrimage is just one of several that your church small group, Bible Study, United Women of Faith, United Methodist Men, Confirmation class, or even your own family can come to learn and enjoy.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference has 16 historical sites with 33 component sites within our bounds. You are welcome to come and explore these, or others, such as the Strawbridge Shrine in New Windsor where the class meetings began; the Georgetown Cluster in Washington, DC, where you can explore the history of the LGBTQIA+ community at Dumbarton UMC, or the way in which race split our churches by traveling from Dumbarton to Mt. Zion and then on to the Female Union Band/Mt. Zion Cemetery.

 Or perhaps you’d like to explore Methodist education at Cokesbury College in Abingdon in Harford County. These and other sites are available, free of charge, although donations are always appreciated. Contact Rev. Bonnie McCubbin, Director of Museums & Pilgrimage, at to start exploring the fully customizable possibilities.

If you can’t make it out in person, starting on Sunday, May 1, Archives and History will be highlighting one historic site per day for six days through a virtual pilgrimage experience and videos available on the BWC YouTube channel, Facebook page, and website. Pilgrimage Week will conclude on Saturday, May 7, when multiple sites will be open for you to explore, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Be sure to print out your passport and have it marked at each location. If you make it to four or more locations that day, at your final stop you will receive a small gift. Please use the hashtag #BWCPilgrimageWeek2022 so that we can see your photos and posts.

In the words of the Baltimore-Washington Conference Historical Society Vice President, John Strawbridge, in a video promoting Lovely Lane, “If you’re gonna be a Methodist, you should understand who you are and why you are.” Come find yourself in Pilgrimage Week 2022.