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#OTGYpsi: Michigan's second-oldest AME church celebrates 180th anniversary in Ypsilanti


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: Michigan's second-oldest AME church celebrates 180th anniversary in Ypsi

Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church


Josh Hakala: You're listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala sitting in for Cathy Shafran, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community and we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, we will spend a few minutes getting to know a church in Ypsilanti that is historic in a number of ways. Today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barksdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rylee, thanks so much for being with us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: All right. And located on West Michigan Avenue between Second Avenue and Fernwood Street. Tell me about the Brown Chapel.

Rylee Barnsdale: So, Brown Chapel is actually the second oldest operating A.M.E. Church in the state of Michigan. It was founded back in 1843, which was about 22 years before Black slaves achieved freedom. And it's actually believed that the church's original location on Adams and Buffalo here in Ypsi acted as a point on the Underground Railroad for slaves that had escaped and were making their way toward Canada and toward freedom.

Josh Hakala: So, this church has been around for nearly two centuries. You don't get to say that very often with much of anything.

Rylee Barnsdale: No, you don't.

Josh Hakala: But what drew you to write about it?

Rylee Barnsdale: So, our On the Ground team was actually notified of Brown Chapel through a community member when Brown Chapel held their annual Brotherhood banquet back in April. This is their 70th Brotherhood banquet, which is an annual event the church holds to bring together members of the community, regardless of race or religion, in order to create a sense of unity among Ypsi's community and population.

Josh Hakala: So, it's the African Methodist Episcopal Church now. I saw, you know, when I was looking up information about it, I know that there were people who were asking questions about saying, "Is this just for Africans?" Like, "No, it's a very, you know, inclusive church."

Rylee Barnsdale: That's right. And the AME Church, as an organization, is fundamentally anti-racist. And the African part of A.M.E. really is paying tribute to the freed African slaves that founded the church all those years ago. And, fun fact-- actually one of the most the quickest growing A.M.E. churches right now is actually in India. And then across the locations in the United States, there are pastoral teams that are comprised of folks of all different races and genders. So, it's really with the church's mission statement being about ministering to the spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual and environmental needs of all people. That mission, coupled with events at Brown Chapel, like the Brotherhood banquet, really show that Brown Chapel can be a home for just about anybody.

Josh Hakala: And we'll get to that mission statement here. And joining us in the studio is Reverend Donald Phillips. He, along with his wife, Dr. Teleah Phillips, have been leading the Brown Chapel since August of 2020. And thanks so much for joining us.

Rev. Donald Phillips: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here and join you in this talk and sharing.

Josh Hakala: Yeah. Now, this church has been around for nearly two centuries, and you've been there nearly three years. So, how aware were you of this church before you arrived and how much history there is with it?

Rev. Donald Phillips: Well, there is certainly a lot of history with not only the AME Church, but Brown Chapel specifically. I've been aware of them since I was a young person. My family joined the AME Church. I probably was about four or five years old as a child. We, at that time, were from the Detroit area, but we were living on the East Coast in New Jersey. And my father grew up Baptist, My mother was Pentecostal. And they were looking for a church to get together and take the whole family to. Somehow, the AME Church is not really in the middle of all that, but they found this great AME church in New Jersey. And so, when we came back in '87, we got involved in the AME Church in Michigan, and Brown Chapel was one of those churches. Interestingly enough, every AME church is connected. So, to be a part of one AME Church, you're really a part of all of them. So, in 2020, as you mentioned, I was already pastoring for 15 years in Albion, Michigan. And when the former pastor retired--Pastor Hatter, who I knew because we used to go to the same church before we started pastoring there--we had the opportunity to lead that congregation under assignment by our bishop.

Josh Hakala: Yeah. Reverend Jerry Hatter was there for nearly 30 years. And when you were assigned to the church's co-pastors--you and your wife-- I'm told you're just the second clergy couple for an AME church in Michigan history. Why is that so rare?

Rev. Donald Phillips: You know, it's probably rare because of our doctrine and discipline really had set it up for there being one pastor, right, and for a church to know how to support one pastor and then having a staff otherwise. And so, I think it's been a challenge for the AME Church to shift with this idea of clergy couples or teams pastoring, even though another denomination that's not necessarily a rare thing at this point. So, our current bishop had enough foresight to say, "You know what? They're both ordained, they're both gifted and talented, and they can work this out together."

Josh Hakala: Not many married couples get a chance to work the same job together, and I'm sure you both bring different skills and experiences to the table. What is that dynamic like?

Rev. Donald Phillips: You know, it has actually been a growing process for us. And we are married now 15 years, and we have six children. We had our goddaughter, as well as one of our children. And so, in the process of life and my wife also being a physician, a primary care physician, there's been a lot of growing in that process. You know, I started ministry track before she did, but she is still going through seminary and doing some things while working as a physician. So, we've grown together to see what our strengths and skills are. She's a very gifted, very administratively-minded and does a lot of great things organizationally, as well as speaking. And I'm very much so a people person. I like to talk and meet people. And so, we try to allow our skills to balance each other out and doing the work of ministry.

Josh Hakala: Prior to arriving in Ypsi, you mentioned you were in Albion. You had stops in Atlanta as well, but when you took over Brown Chapel in August of 2020 at the height of the COVID 19 pandemic. I mean, I don't need to tell you that's a rough time to start any new job, really, much less lead a congregation. So, what was it like to take over a church during COVID?

Rev. Donald Phillips: Well, to be honest, you know, I didn't think that we would have a move. Each year, in the AME Church, the pastors are either assigned to the same church or reassigned somewhere else. And because it was the pandemic and the church I was pastoring at that time in Albion, we were virtual. I said, "You know, they're not going to, you know, rock the boat too much right now." But certainly, the bishop decided to do a little rocking and transitioning and, at that time Pastor Hatter was retiring. So, it was very much so a learning curve. We were stepped right into, again, virtual worship services and trying to get to know a congregation that was not meeting in person, doing a lot of things through Zoom and Facebook. So, it certainly was a challenge, but one that we really actually grew because we had more ways to connect, even with some of the virtual aspects that were present.

Josh Hakala: And you guys use social media as a way to reach people and also stay connected with people. How was that...you know, you mentioned, of course, the streaming on YouTube and Facebook and things like that. You've really embraced technology. How has that helped you connect with getting not only new congregates, but also staying connected with current ones?

Rev. Donald Phillips: You know, one of the things that was really cool that we did was that initially when we came in, we would prerecord services, right? So, that's kind of really a one-way dialog going out. But we started something after our service called The Gathering, where, after the service, people could jump in Zoom, and we could have a little talk for 30 minutes, an hour, about what people heard, what impacted them. And it really brought a sense of community. Folks were able to give feedback from the service, how it impacted them, things they saw, and, you know, a lot of times even get that in-person worship because they're too busy shaking hands and trying to move to the next thing. So, that was really helpful. And then, in some of the sessions, we found that persons were less likely to be in their own pods, right? You're used to sitting in a certain spot in church or, you know, that person is near the musician. So, they talk to the musicians. And there were members of the church that had been there 20 years who got to know each other better because of, you know, Zoom discussions and prayer calls where they're hearing about each other's families and the needs of each other really helped to build a relationship between each other and also then bring us into that into that dynamic as well.

Josh Hakala: You're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by a Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdall and Reverend Donald Phillips, Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church leader. And they've been around for 180 years. And you talked about being a connectional church. What does that mean? And how does your church stand out from all the others?

Rev. Donald Phillips: Well, you know, I don't necessarily want to say it stands out, but I think our church certainly embraces the idea of community and the importance of serving the community which we live in. You heard Rylee read some of that mission statement about, you know, serving the physical, emotional, you know, educational needs, all these environmental needs of the community. And so, because of that, things like feeding programs, being a part of feeding programs, engaging young people and families, finding out being engaged in the community, even politically to see what are the bills, what are the things that are coming to Ypsilanti area that we need to be aware of and to inform the congregation about to how to engage, and also how to serve in a caring way.

Josh Hakala: So, you said part of your mission, you're trying to help the lives of the people in the community. Tell me about some of the programs that you are a part of and have started to do that.

Rev. Donald Phillips: Well, one of the things that I was excited about is that, for almost 30 years, if not more, Brown Chapel has had a weekly feeding program called the Good Samaritan Feeding Program, in partnership with the Food Gatherers and other organizations, so that persons could come every Friday between 11 and 12:30 and receive fresh food and produce and canned goods. And prior to the pandemic, they would also, you know, serve a meal along with that. And that was a great connection point for the community. Because of the pandemic, we had to shift how we did things with COVID, and it shifted to a drive-thru program. And so that's, you know, that's one aspect. The Brotherhood banquet, which, as you heard, was paused to connect persons beyond especially racial lines at that time some 70 years ago, but also some of the political lines and racial lines and religious lines to say, "Look, let's this have a spirit of unity in Ypsilanti and how we can be stronger together." And that's just a few of the programs that have been consistent that people are aware of and know about it.

Josh Hakala: So, your church is open to, you know, people of all races and everything, but it was founded to serve the Black people of the community who are not allowed to worship alongside white people. And how is this informed the church's mission in the 21st century?

Rev. Donald Phillips: You know, in the 21st century, with things like Black Lives Matter and various things that we've seen politically, one thing that AME Church says is that they're unashamedly Black and unashamedly Christian, right? And so, you know, in the AME Church, you will, you know, hear about African American history, the importance of culture and building each other up and building up persons in the society, even those of that from African American context. But the interesting thing is that, as the church has grown, that focus of education, of economic uplift, of support has resonated with other groups and other disenfranchised groups. And so, you heard Rylee mention that one of the areas that we're growing the fastest right now is in India, and that is because there were some persons from India who were in seminary and they heard about the message of AME Church and what they were doing, and they said, "You know what? This really fits our people as well, our culture as well." You know, India still has, in some places, of the caste system in place. And there are those who are on the lowest bottom of the caste called the Dalits. They're often the darker-skinned Indians. And so, this message really resonated with them. And so, they embraced it and had conversations with some of the bishops and leaders and said, "Look, we want to start, AME churches, because the message of it really resonates with who we're trying to serve: the disenfranchised, those who have been abused for whatever reason." And so, we are excited about that growth and expansion, not only in India, but still in Africa, certainly in Europe, and even in South America. We're still growing. Even a lot of it in America, a lot of the congregations may be aging, but we're still growing and trying to connect the community.

Josh Hakala: With the worst of the pandemic behind us, you've been able to fully start this next chapter of the historic church. You're entering this year almost three years in charge. And what do you see in the future for Brown Chapel as you approach almost 200 years in Ypsilanti? [

Rev. Donald Phillips: First thing I see is growth. The Brown Chapel is such a loving congregation, and it's interesting how cycles that take place. When Pastor Hatter came, you know, almost now, over 30 years ago, he came with a family of five, married with a family of five. And then, when Pastor Teleah and I were sent here, we came married with family of five children that were in the home at the time. And the church said, "Look, we want to reach families. We want to touch the community." And so, we really weren't doing anything new for them but really trying to revitalize that and and press forward in that. So, we see growth. We see more connections. It's unfortunate when, you know, there may be people who live right down the street from your church that don't know who you are or where you are that you want to welcome and engage in and partner to do good work in the community. So, even right in our neighborhood groups like the Hope Clinic, we built partnerships with, Growing Hope right down the street, and others, we want to continue to just do some wonderful partnering and helping and sharing the love of God in the community of Ypsilanti and abroad.

Josh Hakala: Reverend Donald Phillips from the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And, as always, Rylee Barnsdale from Concentrate Media. Thank you so much for joining us today on On the Ground Ypsi.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Rev. Donald Phillips: Thank you.

Josh Hakala: This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala. And this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU dot org.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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