By combining the youth’s fresh ideas with the elderly wisdom, AME Union at 1614 Jefferson St. provides a dynamic experience that caters, holistically, to its congregation’s needs.
“The vision for the church is to be what I see as a space where people of different perspectives, faith expressions and spiritual expressions coming together with a united cause of loving humanity,” said senior pastor Paul J. Thomas. “I’m trying to get people to have the right mindset to prosper [as] living creatures in communities and neighborhoods and so forth.”
His secret to growing and maintaining the church’s youth population, he said, has been tailoring his Sunday and other services to appeal and relate to millennials, generally considered those born in 1980 to 2000. So, instead of dressing up in a suit and tie every Sunday, he opts to wear a “regular shirt and jeans.”
Thomas, whose youthful energy complements his youthful approach, also modifies the traditional AME worship service, with its extensive liturgies, as he sees fit.
“I’ve made traditional aspects of the liturgy flexible where it’s removable and it’s something that makes sense. I will go from music into reading Scripture, then prayer and sermon or there are times we’ll do a hymn because hymns teach a different aspect,” he said.
“They label me radical in that way, what my colleagues would say is, ‘You wouldn’t know you were in an AME church.’ “ said Thomas, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and Lincoln University graduate who became heavily involved in the ministry around 2003.
Harriet Harris, a member for 80 years, acknowledges that the church is “completely different” from her earlier years but “you learn to adjust to new ways. [And] there’s only one God.”
Despite AME Union becoming younger and experiencing other changes, Willa Stokes, a member for 75 years, says the Word has remained consistent.
“We keep our focus on the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” she said. “Pastor [Thomas] is true to the Word. I believe he’s anointed.”
Raised in Baptist and AME churches, Thomas says he has always been exposed to the “energetic, prophetic spiritual experience.” The influences are apparent as he begins his sermons with a clear definition of the topic, and follows up with high energy storytelling from the Bible that’s intertwined with life issues his congregation may be experiencing.
On stage, he’s able to shout and get physical and at the same time, drive his major points home.
Jo’el Green, 30-year-old church drummer who joined a year ago, described Thomas’ preaching as relatable. On Sundays during the worship service, Green said he often he typed notes from Thomas’ sermons into his cellphone, so he could keep the wisdom on him at all times.
“I was going through something he [preached] about — honoring God with your service and your body without complaining, and how when you give God [service], blessings come down,” said Green. “At the time, I was struggling with that. I just wanted to come, hear the Word and go home. The [sermon] made me want to use my gifts more and to be more active in the church.”
Another piece that the congregants say has helped to engage youth is Thomas’ involvement in their lives.
“He is so supportive,” said Sheryl Sesay, a Temple University student who has been coming to the church for three years. “I sing with the Temple Gospel Choir. [And] he has come to every show. He hasn’t missed one. It makes me feel good because when you come to church, you feel at home.”
Green agreed, saying that Thomas is a voice of reason.
“He’s real. I feel like I can talk to him,” he said. “He tells me when I’m right and when I’m wrong.”
Such mentorship is further promoted by AME Union elders, who provide support on all levels.
Donna Graham, who has been a congregant since 2012, said in addition to Thomas’ teachings, the elder women at the church inspired a change in her.
“[By] talking to the older women and them taking me in as a daughter and a granddaughter, my attitude changed [and] the way I lived. I became a better woman, a better nurse, a better mother and a better wife too,” she said. “They are always telling me [to] always carry myself as a woman of God in whatever I do.”
Greg Lynch, a trustee, shared a similar view.
“I’m still learning. AME Union has helped me grow from the ones I learned from — the men and women that are no longer here,” he said. “You learn something in life and death.”
Later in that Sunday afternoon, Harriet Harris, 87, a member for 80 years and the president of the missionary ministry, signed off on some documents confirming Thomas for a speaking engagement.
“I guess it’s just in me,” she said of her work in the church.
In service with the missionary ministry, she said she and other elders minister to the sick and shut in and coordinate regular service projects. One of their major efforts is an annual trip to the Harrisburg area with other churches.
“We take migrant [farmer] families hygiene products every year,” said Harris. “Our goal is 1,000 kits.”
Other outreach ministry work is non-traditional and is designed to give AME Union members leadership opportunities.
“Even if you don’t attend every Sunday or if you have a mindset to do ministry, we connect whether or not your are present,” said Thomas. “We have done that through the feeding ministry and the prison ministry we are establishing. And one of our affiliates does an after school program in the community. What we’ve done is given people a space to be creative.”
For Thanksgiving, AME Union provides food to needy families; and for Christmas, toys for children. Internally there are men’s, women’s and youth ministries, a liturgical dance ministry and a mime ministry.
The church also has a community development corporation that will begin a seniors health initiative through an AARP grant.
Thomas says his objective is to continue to grow the church in such a way that members are inspired to answer the countless burdens that can overwhelm individuals and families.
“People need support in life to make it through. If we can create all avenues of support — a support for people that’s struggling with sexuality, a support for seniors that are dealing with certain issues of care or malcare, [the] teenagers processing through sexual activity, [that] is my vision,” said the senior pastor at the church in North Philadelphia.
“It’s so far-reaching that I want to connect with every piece of the human experience, that way it will support people to have that midas touch. Human beings are created persons to prosper creation,” Thomas added.