Racial barriers were broken as blacks and whites came together for worship on Sunday at a Philadelphia church that once espoused segregation.
Members of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded in the late 1700s by a group of blacks who walked out of St. George's Methodist Church because of segregated seating, were welcomed back for a "reunion" and integrated worship.
"You bless us in a way mere words fall short. The memory of what happened – hurt, hostility, disgrace, and disappointment – did not keep you from being here today. You grace us in coming," said the Rev. Fred Day, pastor of Historic St. George's Church, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Centuries ago, St. George's was for some a symbol for racial segregation, Day said. But today, reconciliation is more on the minds of the community when they view the nation's oldest Methodist congregation.
Hundreds of black worshippers from Mother Bethel joined dozens of St. George's white members for the historic service. The two Philadelphia churches have previously held ceremonial exchanges together, but this was the first time they worshipped together on a Sunday morning.
"It's a reunion, but more than that ... It's COMMunion, Holy Communion, people coming together, differences and all, together at the Lord's Table, seeking peace and harmony with God and one another. You can't have one without the other," Day said.
The idea for the joint service was born as the pastors of both churches were planning to commemorate separate historic occasions. St. George had its 240th anniversary to celebrate while Mother Bethel was marking the 250th birthday of Bishop Richard Allen.
Allen was among those who left the segregated worship at St. George's more than 200 years ago and founded Mother Bethel, which established independence from white Methodists. The former Delaware slave also formed the AME Church, a Wesleyan denomination.
In a symbolic gesture on Sunday, the Rev. Day presented Mother Bethel pastor the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler with a cross that was made with the nails from St. George's balcony – which was built to segregate blacks and whites.
The two churches have planned for more joint worship services in the future. But Tyler noted that racial divisions are still "alive and well" across the country.
He hopes that one day a service like the one they just held "will not even be newsworthy because we have overcome issues of racism, sexism, classism, and all other -isms that separate us from one another and God."
The integrated worship comes after The United Methodist Church adopted a constitutional amendment that recognizes "the sin of racism that has been destructive to its unity throughout its history" and calls the denomination to "confront and seek to eliminate racism."