Pastor, profs reflect on field study of St. John A.M.E.

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By Randy Patrick

Bardstown is a place where the past is always present, and Dr. Kilen Gray sensed that after a few days here.

“You can feel the history in the air!” he said.

Gray is part of a group of academics from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary who were in town this week, meeting with the Rev. Roscoe Linton, pastor of St. John A.M.E. Zion Church, his wife Elizabeth, members of their congregation and other leaders.

They are doing an ethnographic case study of black rural churches in America, and chose St. John, along with two other congregations — Lane Chapel C.M.E. Church in Hopkinsville, and First Baptist Church in Brownsville, Tenn.

St. John was the first church they visited, arriving last weekend and wrapping up their interviews Thursday.

The seminary hopes to gain a better understanding of the black rural faith community in order to better serve it. The church hopes to better understand itself and how it relates to its community.

One thing Gray observed is how strong the bonds are that hold the people of this small church together, “no matter where they go.”

“There’s a thriving, pervasive sense of community,” he said. “You’re part of this congregation for life.”

That sense of connection is strong, and the people of the church they talked to place a high value on it, he said.

Dr. Angela Cowser, the associate dean of black church studies, who is heading the study, said that St. John, like its denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is open to interdenominational action.

“They are ecumenical to their core, and they don’t waver on that. They are always ready to partner with other churches and other institutions for the betterment of the community,” she said. “I think it’s in their DNA. It’s who they are.”

Cowser said the reason the seminary is doing the research is that the scholarly literature available on the African-American rural church is “thin and scarce.”

“It’s almost non-existent, and what is out there is old,” she said.

She wants to create “new scholarship … on African-American rural ministry that we can teach at the seminary.”

Chris Wooton, director of communications and assistant to the president of the seminary, said the local church leaders will have a teaching role as well. They are being trained to continue the research and will be lecturers at the next annual conference where the findings will be discussed.

“They’ve had the training, they’re working with us, and they have the skills” to carry on the work when the seminary team leaves town, he said, and “they’ll have more to offer when they come in February to be part of that consultation.”

“I think they’re going to take it and run with it,” he said.

Tuesday afternoon, Pastor Linton had a few minutes to talk about the study in his office while waiting to meet with two Masonic groups in the community the church has a relationship with and that are also part of the study.

“It’s been a great experience,” Linton said, one that he believes will further strengthen St. John’s ties to other churches and groups and their collaborative efforts.

“It causes you take a hard look at yourself and see what you bring” to the table in terms of resources, and “realize that you can do more together than individually,” he said.

“That’s what it’s about, making disciples, you know, and leadership within the community,” he said.

St. John’s definition of community isn’t only parochial. Besides helping to re-establish the local NAACP chapter and working with local groups such as an American Legion post, the two Masonic lodges and other churches, including St. Monica Catholic and First Baptist, they also work with Samaritan’s Purse and the Prison Fellowship’s angel tree ministry. And part of the congregants’ tithes help support missionaries in Angola, South Africa, Jamaica and Birmingham, England.

“We’ve been overjoyed that we’ve been participants in this program, and we see that God wants to take us to new heights … and it’s just amazing to see how that works,” he said.