Photos by Fred TenEyck
Gathering pastors and lay leaders from Washington, D.C., to Long Beach, California (and many places in between), the African Heritage Network of the Free Methodist Church – USA celebrated its 20-year anniversary over Valentine’s weekend. Between breakout sessions, powerful prayer and worship, and the telling of stories, AHN members and special guests were able to reach back into AHN’s history and roots, celebrating how far we’ve come, while also looking forward to the work to be done and our place in it.
“This conference has brought forth many stories, and many opportunities to get to know one another. I’ll never look at a name on an email in the same way,” said Derrick Shields, the lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Columbus, Georgia.
The conference began with E. Kenneth Martin, the lead pastor of John Wesley Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis, sharing his own journey within the FMC and the formation of the AHN 20 years ago. He spoke of his beginnings as a restaurant supervisor, his calling to vocational ministry, and his work in rough neighborhoods, fighting for housing and better schools, and pastoring a black and white church that worked together in a racially divided area. Martin and his wife, John Wesley FMC Assistant Pastor Estelle Martin, also shared about their work in their current context, building a multiethnic church, and reaching out to the large African immigrant community around them.
There were many struggles along the way, but Estelle Martin spoke of how their deep rooting in Christ allowed them to stay the course. “You have to be who you are in Him, so that you can do what you do for Him,” she said.
As the day continued, attendees had the chance to attend two sets of breakout sessions: the first set led by Free Methodist Church in Southern California Superintendent Charles Latchison on “Church Growth Primer” and East Michigan Conference Elder Patrick McNeal on “How to Develop a Not-for-Profit Ministry.” The latter set of breakouts featured New Beginnings Community Church (Ypsilanti, Michigan) Pastor Jeffery Harrold on “Developing an Advocacy Ministry” and House of Oaks Ministries (Tukwila, Washington) Pastors Debra and Deryl Davis-Bell on “Marriage in Ministry: Working Together.” Each breakout offered practical tools to advance men and women as pastors and lay people, both in the church and in their local communities.
Living Hope FMC (Brooklyn, New York) Pastor Euline Jackson later shared her story of her call to ministry, to the FMC and to being part of the founding of the AHN. She discussed how her awakening to caring for her community began in her advocacy for black men unjustly taken into police headquarters during the Civil Rights era. Jackson spoke of her passion for standing in the gap for others, her initial dream of becoming a lawyer, and her beginnings in ministry as a director of outreach for at-risk youth in her community. As one of the founding members of the AHN, her vision for the FMC was and still is to “define Free as God defines it — [freedom of] every tribe, every nation, every tongue.” She began and ended her story by saying, “I am excited! … We are here to make the Free Methodist Church look like heaven.”
At the closing of the first day, the founders of the AHN were celebrated. First, Monica Harrold led a presentation — originally compiled by the late Detroit Redford FMC Pastor William Mulwee — on the history of African-American pastors and leaders in the FMC from the 1800s forward. Founding AHN members E. Kenneth Martin, Euline Jackson and Jeffery Harrold were then awarded certificates of appreciation.
Jeffery Harrold had the opportunity to share his own story on the second day of the conference. He discussed his college conversion to Christ, his roots in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, his ministry in prisons, and his work in student academic affairs. He shared that he and his wife, Monica, lead a structurally healthy church in Southern Michigan. In regard to AHN, he spoke of his calling then and now to be “an advocate for racial and social justice, both in and out of the church” and of his journey to address systems and structures on the plight of reconciliation.
AHN Assistant Director Kristy Hinds — who also serves as the assistant superintendent of ministry development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California — shared about the importance of writing our stories down and sharing them with others.
“History is what is written,” Hinds shared. “If you write, then publish. If you don’t write, journal and leave your story for future generations.”
Hinds spoke of the need and great power that comes when we hold each other’s stories, as “beliefs are limited, until we have the opportunity to widen them.” She encouraged pastors and lay people alike to pursue writing opportunities with publications like FreeMo Journals and Light + Life Magazine.
Bishop Matthew Thomas followed by affirming the need for diverse voices at the table and sharing his desire to see the AHN grow. “The more we are able to reach across lines, the healthier we are,” Thomas said. “It makes us stretch to understand, to grow and to increase in our faith.”
As one of the closing sessions of the day, Derrick Shields spoke about our call to become cultural architects, in order to see salvation, connection and life transformation among our communities. He emphasized “travailing prayer,” “bands of discipleship” and “robust expansion of the gospel” as methods to work toward this goal.
Reflecting on the last two days of the conference, River Conference Superintendent Amelia Cleveland-Traylor said, “I think it’s important, not only for Free Methodist Church leadership, but that [others] become aware that AHN exists.”
She said the intent is for AHN to be “a coalition of folks for the purposes of education, for opportunities, for support … for doing ministry together. And it’s being effective.” While “there absolutely is more work to be done,” she said, “what’s already happening and especially happening in this capacity … is good. It’s encouraging. It’s a source of hope. There are some brilliant people in this room.”
AHN Director Michael Traylor, who also serves as a River Conference superintendent, said while closing the 2019 conference, “It’s been such an honor to celebrate 20 years. I love the theme of looking back and looking at the contributions and the struggle of those who pioneered in the FMC as African-Americans, and then being able to see how their faithfulness has really paid off in terms of making the FMC more inclusive, more diverse, more multiethnic and multicultural. It’s beautiful to stop and see what God is doing.”
Rachel Leming is the ministry, media and finance assistant at Light & Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California. She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies from Westmont College and has a passion for storytelling.
Fred TenEyck is the senior pastor of New Vision Fellowship Church in Forestville, Maryland, and the communications director of the African Heritage Network.