AMHERST – The May long weekend. The forecast calls for mild temperatures and sunshine. Sunday might be a nice day to open the cottage.
Or not. For the congregation of Highland African Methodist Episcopal Church, it might be a nice day to reflect on their 139th anniversary, which will be celebrated May 20 with a visit by the head of their international denomination, Senior Bishop John Richard Bryant.
Reverend Christine Slaughter, pastor of Highland AME, knows she may lose a few parishioners to the beach. But Bishop Bryant’s schedule is booked a year in advance – the plan was laid before it occurred to anyone that Sunday fell on the long weekend.
The church has faced bigger hurdles over its 139 years.
“It’s a big deal to me,” said Slaughter, when asked how much significance the 139th anniversary holds.
It’s her first pastoral charge. She’s been there a year and half. But not that long ago the church had no pastor.
“The church over the years has had some struggles,” said the pastor.
According to Slaughter, from 1983 to the late 1990s, basically three women – Ruth Henry, Dorothy Jones and Beryl Harper – paid the bills to keep the building open.
Like most, if not all, congregations in this part of the world, Highland AME wrestles with declining numbers.
“We’re a small congregation,” she said. She relates with pleasure the fact that two new people – younger people in their 20s and 30s – joined the congregation last Sunday.
“We have got to reach that younger group,” she said. If they fail in that task, the church won’t be there 139 years from now, according to Slaughter.
Congregations need to find out what young people need from churches. People have changed more over the years than their churches have, said Slaughter.
The pastor may not be counting on a big turnout this Sunday – although two new, young members may boost the numbers – but with the visit of Bryant coinciding with an anniversary celebration, it should still be a big deal for the little church on Church Street.
The denomination has 21 episcopal districts. Bishop Bryant presides over District 4, – which encompasses population centres such as Illinois and Michigan, plus all of Canada. Bryant is the senior bishop among 21 bishops.