Church Started for Freed Slaves Still Packing the Pews

WINCHESTER, VA- Every Sunday morning you can find a vibrant and spirited atmosphere at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. Whether it's the music, the message or both, this church has sustained a loyal congregation.

"I love this church because when I came they accepted me for who I was, seeing something in me that I couldn't see in myself," says Jenna Warren an usher and trustee at St. Paul A.M.E.

St. Paul A.M.E. was organized in 1867 in downtown Winchester. It was one of the only churches for newly freed African slaves after the Civil War.

"They started this church, a group of people meeting in homes, sharing, worshiping in their homes together," says Reverend Kevin Wilson, the pastor at St. Paul.

Originally established as the Free African Society, in 1787, the A.M.E. Church came to be in 1794. Richard Allen, a former slave from Delaware, led the cause after years of discrimination in his own church.

"They were not permitted to worship as they wanted to," Wilson says. "The worship experience was pretty controlled for the Africans, the African Americans. They were forced to actually sit in the balcony. They could not come to sit down with the Caucasian congregants. They were also not allowed to express themselves as they desired to," Wilson adds.

The newly formed A.M.E. Church gave the worship seekers an outlet to no longer be shunned, and an opportunity to become leaders in their own church setting. St. Paul in Winchester had similar humble beginnings.

"They met in homes for about 10 to 20 years," Wilson says of St. Paul's founders. "After about 20 years, they built the basement. The basement was actually the first place of worship for the persons that were in this church. And of course from that point they began to add other parts to the church," he adds.

Now, 145 years later, the members at St. Paul take pride in their history.

"We're still strong and we're still following the principles and doctrines that were indoctrinated 145 years ago," says Warren.

The church also continues its mission through community service.  "One of the main reasons I love St. Paul is it allows me to give back," says Trustee Board Member, Paul Crowe. "I'm actually a facilitator in a 'Free For Life' ministry. It's a drug rehabilitation ministry," he adds.

Kevin Wilson has been the pastor for more than 20 years, welcoming anyone who comes.

"The reason that we are still here is because of the prayers of the saints of old," Wilson says. "Those who prayed not only for themselves, but prayed for their legacy and for the church of the future. I believe we're still standing on the shoulders of those who came before us."

Membership in the church is a responsibility and a blessing, carrying on a piece of Winchester and American history.

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