By Rory O’Sullivan, Staff Writer
“The doors of the church are still open,” boomed Reverend Noella Austin Buchanan from her pulpit at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Riverside this past Sunday just days after nine people were brutally murdered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during bible study by gunman Dylann Roof.
The doors of Allen Chapel AME have been open since November 1875, making it the oldest predominantly Black church in Riverside. Founded in the same vein of racial equality, compassion, and forgiveness as the original Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia by Richard Allen in 1794, the oldest Black church in the nation.
The recent shooting at Emanuel AME, the oldest AME church in the Southern United States, did not change the activities of Allen Chapel.
They still opened with worship from The African Methodist Episcopal Hymn and Tune Book with more rhythm and soul than the more traditional hymns of the United Methodist Church. The pews with their red and stainless glass windows were all the same. The teachings of forgiveness and equality were the same.
“How many took the time to pray for this young man, pray for his mother, pray for his father, pray for his brother,” asked Buchanan. “Allen Chapel has always and will always be a church about forgiveness.”
“It’s the love everyone has in their heart,” said Helen Armstrong, 87, who became a member of the church when she was 16. “You either continue to love as [God] wanted us to… even though I don’t like what he did I don’t hate him.”
No one at Allen Chapel hated Roof. The tone of the church was one of love and compassion for a soul that had lost his way. Buchanan said it’s their duty as Christians to show the love of the church even in times like this.
It was the tone of AME members across the nation.
Karen Carter, 56, from St. Louis who came to see Buchanan who was the pastor at her AME Church in St. Louis before Allen Chapel, was visiting family in Los Angeles when the shooting took place. She also went to the vigil held at FAME in Los Angeles.
“This is my family here,” said Carter. “Even though I’m not from here this is my family. And in times like these you need to be around family.”
Carter was also not angry with Roof and felt “pity” for him and his family.
The words from Buchanan and Armstrong and Carter were echoed inside the walls of Emanuel AME Church, “The doors of the church are open,” declared the Rev. Norvel Goff during prayers according to CNN. “No evildoer, no demon in hell or on Earth can close the doors of God’s church,” he proclaimed.
“If you hate somebody, it’s going to weigh you down,” said Armstrong. “I can’t live like that.”
This isn’t the first time the Allen Chapel family has stood in the midst of hate and turmoil showing the love of God. The church started off by opening their homes to recently freed slaves coming west to escape prejudice down south.
“People coming off the trains they would grab the Black people who came here,” said church secretary, Teri Andrews. “We’ve always been a part of the Black community in Riverside.”
They not only faced the obstacles that all new churches in Riverside faced but a second barrier that proved a constant threat was racial discrimination said Andrews. The AME Church was founded by Black people, for Black people, in a time when prejudice and bigotry was pervasive in the church. Allen Chapel gave Blacks a safe place to express their love of God and each other and bring about social justice in the community.
During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the church hosted rallies that couldn’t be hosted by other denominations, said Armstrong.
She said they calmed racial tensions in 1971 after officers Leonard Christiansen and Paul Teel were ambushed and allegedly killed by a group of Black gunmen after responding to a fake call and again when 19-year-old Tyisha Miller was shot and killed by four White police officers in 1998. Now they are easing Black and Brown tensions with the Eastside Reconciliation Coalition (ERC).
“Allen Chapel is more than just a church in the community,” said Castle Rock Christian Fellowship Pastor Jon S. Harris who spearheads the ERC. “Allen Chapel has always fed the homeless and helped the disenfranchised, as a consequence they broke through several barriers.”
Harris said “a big deal in the 70s” was when Allen Chapel moved from its original one room building on Sedgwick Avenue and 10th Street into their current building on the corner of Tenth and Locust, integrating Downtown Riverside.
“They broke down that barrier for the rest of us,” said Harris.
Associate Reverend Monrow Mabon said the church would continue to break down barriers and serve the community because that is what Jesus has commanded them to do.
“We are going to continue to do the Lord’s work even outside these walls,” said Mabon.
Mabon said the church will also continue to help people coming out of jail looking for a chance to start their lives over. Church members were instrumental in getting Proposition 47 passed reducing several non-violent felonies into misdemeanors.
In showing the love of God, Allen Chapel also serves its community through its programs of service and compassion. This past Sunday, the church gave away hundreds of dollars in scholarship money to several high school graduates. Every Tuesday, Allen Chapel feeds close to 20 families, in addition to clothing families in need.
Andrews said the church is always open to those in need. She said it’s the church’s job to show the love of Jesus Christ and that the church doors are always open to those in need, and that’s what being an AME is all about.
“If I see a way to get what they need I do it,” states Andrews. “I don’t think you even think, you just do. You just do.”