Church meeting is city's largest convention of the year

By Tim Townsend


July 3, 2008

In 1787, a group of African-Americans walked out of St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia after white worshippers yanked a black member of the church to his feet who was kneeling in prayer in an area of the church reserved for whites.

The group, led by St. George's black pastor, the Rev. Richard Allen, bought an old blacksmith shop where Allen used an anvil as his pulpit. Employing the Hebrew term for "House of God," they called their new church the "Bethel Church for Negro Methodists."

Allen had been born into slavery, and he bought freedom for himself (and his brother) just four years before walking out of St. George's. Perhaps it is coincidence, but that time frame — four years — has become important to the denomination Allen founded.

More than two centuries later, the African Methodist Episcopal Church's "Doctrine and Discipline" mandates that the oldest African-American denomination meet every four years "for the purpose of conducting the Church's legislative business and financial reporting."

But the nearly 30,000 delegates and church leaders who will gather Friday at the America's Center for the AME General Conference will do much more than that. Planned events include worship services, a golf tournament, educational forums and a gospel music concert Sunday evening, open to the public for $25.

This week's AME meeting is the largest convention scheduled in St. Louis for 2008, according to Stephanie Monroe of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, and is expected to bring $30 million to the region. Church conventions have been good to St. Louis in recent years. Last year's largest group was a meeting of the National Baptist Convention, which brought 40,000 church members and $39 million to the region. The next-largest convention this year was last month's meeting of 10,000 members of the National Athletic Trainers Association.

Both presidential candidates — Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. John McCain of Arizona — have been invited to address the AME General Conference. Neither has accepted yet.

The AME gathering also means the election of new bishops, and the meeting of what amounts to the church's version of the Supreme Court. The Judicial Council will decide internal church disputes, perhaps including the case of the Rev. Sylvester Laudermill, a former St. Louis pastor who has been accused of sexually abusing minors in St. Louis and Los Angeles.

Six of the 147 pieces of legislation proposed for the conference aim to amend the church's current policies on sexual misconduct, and some church members say the Laudermill case is the reason.

But Bishop John Bryant, who heads the church's fifth district, stretching from Missouri to California, said the denomination was simply catching up in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Catholic church.

"Because of the Catholic church, that is now a real, live issue for a lot of churches today," he said. "It is a learning process as you deal with litigation and all the rest."

Bryant said the church body also was likely to release a statement on gay marriage. His district will be particularly involved in the statement since California's Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage in May. The church's "Doctrine and Discipline" says same-sex marriage is "contrary to the will of God," and forbids its ministers from participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Black Protestant denominations make up about 7 percent of the U.S. population, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans are members of the AME Church, though it is the third-largest denomination within the historically African-American Christian traditions, behind Baptists (such as the National Baptist Convention), who make up 4.4 percent of the U.S. population, and Pentecostals (such as the Church of God in Christ) who make up nearly 1 percent.

Like many denominations, the AME Church is struggling financially. Its local churches, many of them in poor, urban neighborhoods, have had difficulty contributing to denominational coffers recently.

A rationale for one piece of legislation being introduced this week cited "economic disaster" in black communities around the country, and said church members were leaving because they didn't feel connected to the broader denomination.

"They see money 'going up' ... and 'nothing coming back,'" the proposal reads. "It would behoove the Church not to impose an additional burden on the local churches by raising budgetary assessments. We must develop new strategies to fund the denomination."

Bryant blamed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for "the ungodly amount of money being spent on war when local needs are not being met."

"We're hoping to send that message to our political leadership as we approach the coming election," he said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay are scheduled to attend the General Conference.

If the church's Judicial Council — its highest legal authority — takes up the Laudermill case, it will probably be Tuesday. Laudermill, 50, was pastor at St. Peter AME Church, at Margaretta and Shreve avenues, from 1994 to 2004. He then returned to his native Los Angeles to pastor a church there.

Bryant removed Laudermill from ministry after two church-run investigative committees in St. Louis and Los Angeles sustained separate allegations of child sexual abuse against Laudermill in May 2006.

The church investigations looked into allegations that Laudermill had a seven-year sexual relationship with a young man in St. Louis that started when the boy was 14, and that the pastor sexually abused a 16-year-old Los Angeles boy in 2005.

Laudermill was investigated by civil authorities in both cities, but criminal charges have never been filed. A civil trial in the California case is scheduled for October.

Laudermill subsequently won a reversal of the church ruling against him, and Bryant has appealed the reversal. The Judicial Council would determine whether Laudermill will be allowed to pastor an AME church again.