By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Avery Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) is steeped in history. Founded by Black Union soldiers during the Civil War, the church has survived 156 years.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the august journalist, educator and anti-lynching crusader, once
worshiped and taught Sunday school for young men at the original site. This fact was highlighted in her personal diary and published in 1995 as “The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells.”
On Sept. 29, the doors to the age-old church opened for the last time to a capacity crowd who gathered for friends and family day to pray, to worship in song, to proclaim the word of God, and to celebrate their enduring legacy.
“We want to turn over the keys with pride and happiness,” said the Rev. Beverly A. Darden, assistant to the Presiding Prelate of the 13th Episcopal District, the Right Rev. Jeffrey N. Leath.
“My heart is in Avery. I have been associated with Avery for 50-plus years,” Darden said. She grew up in the church and married her husband there. Her children were baptized at the church as well.
“It’s hard,” she said.
Darden was assigned to Avery Chapel after the pastor, the Rev. Lula Martin Sanderson, took a sabbatical earlier this year.
“Since I’ve been here, we have had four deaths since January,” said Darden, a native Memphian who’d spent time in Washington D.C. before moving back to Memphis. “I told the bishop that I would stand in the gap.”
She thought she’d come back to Avery Chapel to lend a helping hand.
Roughly a dozen members were worshiping in the nearly vacant sanctuary, said Darden, feeling a little nostalgic and sentimental now that Avery Chapel has been ordered closed.
“The congregation had experienced decline for really decades,” Leath, the presiding bishop, explained. “They moved from their original site from downtown [Memphis] sometime ago. The new site just hasn’t worked for them.”
Leath pointed out that the church’s demise was due in part to an aging congregation and an inability to attract younger members. Such demographics had set off an alarm at the district level years earlier.
Those who worshiped to the end still subscribe to the church’s motto: “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.” A.M.E. churches in the area have extended invitations to the displaced members to join them.
Avery Chapel had been the mother church of the West Tennessee Conference since its founding and the third A.M.E. church in the entire state at that time. Located at 882 E. Trigg Ave., the third and final location, the church is nestled in the South Memphis community.
Leath said the church hierarchy will decide how to dispose of the building. He isn’t sure when that will happen.
Floyd Harrison Jr., 81, had been a longtime member and church trustee. He said his mother and grandmother once worshiped at Avery Chapel. So did his daughter. Now he is contemplating a move to one of the other A.M.E. churches.
“I have been a member of Avery Chapel since junior high school,” said Harrison, a retired educator. “I came to Avery when it was located at 145 S. Fourth St. That was in 1950.”
Harrison’s brother, Alfred Motlow Sr., had been a longtime member of Avery Chapel as well. In fact, the 83-year-old, also a retired educator, had served dutifully for decades. He had been a steward of the church.
The brothers could be described as anchors with deeper roots in the church than most congregants who’re still alive. Respectively, they tended the needs of the pastor and maintained the church.
Worshiping at the church for the last time conjured up sentimental feelings from within them and the other members as well.
“I’m saddened,” said Harrison, the keeper of Avery’s historic legacy. “It’s been my church and my family’s church all of my life. I’ve known the adults and the young people at the church.”
He said the aging adults eventually succumbed to death and the void was too difficult to fill. The youth, however, worshiped elsewhere. And the death knell at Avery Chapel began ringing.
The remaining congregants had been faithful. Darden, however, said she’d seen their pain, their anguish.
“They’re tired,” she said.