The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church denomination has always played a role in taking a stand in religious, social and educational issues and has been one of the most prevalent denominations within Pittsburgh’s Black community.
Leading the local AMEZ church is Rev. Glenn Grayson, presiding elder of the Pittsburgh District and pastor of Wesley Center AMEZ Church, in the Hill District. He has been in the ministry for more than 25 years and at his church for 15 years.
|COMMUNITY ACTIVIST—Rev. Glenn Grayson at one of the many community events he participates in as a leader in the AMEZ Church.
The New Pittsburgh Courier spoke with Rev. Grayson to get his views on the role of the church as a whole, and the AMEZ denomination in particular, within the Black community.
With Blacks facing issues such as an unemployment rate almost twice that of the national rate, a high violence rate, and a dropout rate that is steadily increasing, Rev. Grayson said the church in general has always played an important role in the Black community, especially in times unemployment, blight etc. It has been a support base; a place the community can turn to.
While some might say the church has lost its presence, he says, “I think they (members of the community) still turn to the church. Some may not be as committed, but when major issues arrive, such as the isms-racism, sexism, etc., the community still turns to the church.”
Historically, the church has been the place where fights for social, and even political, change have begun. It was at the church that people would meet to discuss rallies, marches and protests. Reverend Grayson said that while the style of how the church addresses those issues may have changed, there’s still a presence.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s we marched, today pastors are still active in the fight, but the approach is different.”
Although Rev. Grayson believes the church still has a role in the community, when asked how he would like to see the AMEZ Church grow, he said he would like to see the church be held at the same high regards it once was. “We (clergy) almost have to be creative (with) the services.” He explained that in earlier times, Sundays were sacred, malls were closed and people did not do anything without going to church first. But now church is always in competition with other activities. He said there is no longer a stigma for not going to church.
“I wish people would be more committed to the church without the (need of there being a) crisis,” he said. “As I often say, ‘Because a week from church makes you weak.’”
One of the major issues crippling the Black community is the Black on Black violence. It is an issue that Rev. Grayson is far too familiar with. It was this month last year that he lost his son Jeron to gun violence. He said that in order for this issue to be addressed it is going to take support from all- political officials, foundations and more importantly the community.
“Even before the loss of my son, I was very involved and hands on. The gun issue is definitely a problem. My cry out is: when are we going to see it’s an epidemic and say enough is enough? We have to come together and address it in a massive way,” Rev. Grayson said. He added that it is going to take, “a buy in from the mayor and foundations. There are a lot of (violence reduction programs) models out there (for Pittsburgh to learn from).”
Reverend Grayson said he would also like to see professionals made available to those in the community in times of tragedy. “(In other communities) when a child is killed, there are grief counselors at the schools, but when these young men are killed (on the street), there is no core of professionals to help people with their grief, at least not here (in the Hill District).”
Many of those affected by the violence in the Black community are young Black kids, whether it is the young person being shot, the person doing the shooting or just by knowing a young person who was killed. Although, many congregations are experiencing a loss of youth in the church, Rev. Grayson’s congregation is the opposite. With a youth program, CARES (Children/ Adult Recreational and Educational Services), that reaches out to approximately 125 kids, Rev. Grayson said the key to keeping youth in the church is to be hands on, to have support from the community and foundations and to provide a safe haven where children can come and have positive interactions.
A topic that is rarely discussed in the church is homosexuality. There are a significant number of Black homosexuals in the Pittsburgh area. There has always been a disagreement about homosexuality and its place in the church, Rev. Grayson said this has been an issue that many within the Black church have not wanted to discuss and that some churches hang a sign that all are welcomed when they really are not. He said while he can only speak for himself and his church, at Wesley Center, all are truly welcomed.
While it takes positive reinforcement to rebuild a Black community that was once strong and some might say is dying, it also takes working together. Within the Black community there are numerous churches and sometimes there can be somewhat of a competition, Rev. Grayson says there needs to be more collaboration among churches in and outside of the denomination.
The AMEZ Church has been around for many years. According to the national AMEZ website’s history, it was in 1801 that the denomination was chartered and established in 1820 when Black worshipers decided to break away from White Methodists who would not let them worship freely.
While this was happening in New York, Black worshipers were doing the same in Philadelphia. So to distinguish their movement from that of the one in Philadelphia, which was known as African Methodist Episcopal (AME), they added the Zion, making it the AMEZ Church.