For more than 175 years, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington has made history. It is believed to be the oldest continuously black-owned property in the original 10-square-mile parcel of the District of Columbia, and for decades it was one of the largest places where an integrated audience could gather in fiercely segregated Washington.
The church’s roots are intertwined with the African American struggle for freedom. Decades ago it hosted reunions of black Civil War veterans. Civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, educator Booker T. Washington and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at Metropolitan, a sanctuary that is known as the “National Cathedral” of 2.5 million member denomination.
Now, a new chapter is being written: The Rev. William H. Lamar IV has been named senior pastor. Lamar succeeds The Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, who was elevated to a District elder in the church. The 39-year-old Lamar is a native of Macon, Ga., and prior to coming to Metropolitan he was pastor of the Turner Memorial AME in Hyattsville. Lamar talked with The Washington Post about what he hopes to accomplish as the 23rd pastor of the 176-year-old church.
What is your vision for Metropolitan AME?
Metropolitan has remained strong because with each and every generation, we have figured out how worship, liberation and service intersect. So our work in this generation is to figure out where God is calling us to be about the work of liberation — locally, nationally and internationally, and where we are to be about the work of service.
I am thinking about the prison industrial complex. I am thinking about the state of education. I am thinking about the work of service. I am thinking about the changing demographics in Washington, D.C., and where Metropolitan should be in these things.
One thing that we are already doing in terms of education is that we are helping people get high school diplomas, we are helping people get GEDs. This place is a place of refuge with hospitality for people who are on the margins. We want today’s thinkers, today’s scholars, today’s artists, to bring their gifts here because anyone worshipping God is worshipping with their minds.
How hard do you think it will be to be a pastor of a church with such a proud legacy?
Hebrews talks about being surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, and the Apostles’ Creed talks about the communion of saints. I believe that I am here for this period, but I am surrounded by the ancestors, surrounded by those who came before me. It is really a daunting task. Sometimes I will go up the sanctuary and just look out over the beauty and the expanse of the sanctuary, and what I know is that like the 22 pastors who came before me and 22 who will come after me, I have but an hour in the grand scheme of history.
How do you keep this church relevant, savoring the past but attracting young folks, many of whom don’t want to show up on Sunday morning?
The question is never about relevance because it is always relevant for humans to connect with God. It is always relevant for human beings to seek the fullness of what salvation means. What the church has to understand is that every generation has to communicate to its generation. We have to communicate the truths of the gospel to our generation.
The AME Church comes out of what was called the Free African Society. The Free African Society comes before the founding of the church. What did the Free African Society do? It provided for the economic well-being of the people. It provided for the education of the people. It provided for their physical needs. If we do what the Free African Society did, people will come.
Talk more about what the Free African Society did.
They pooled together their economic resources. They took care of brothers and sisters who were enslaved. Now things have changed in some ways, but in my view, I believe racism in America is permanent. There will always be faces in the bottom of the well. The church’s job is not to pretend that war is over. The work of the church continues, the work of the black church continues, and we have a certain constituency that if we do not serve, if we do not speak for, their voices will fall silent in the broader body politics. Our work is to be unflinching, unbought and unbossed even at this time.
As the pastor of Metropolitan AME what is your vision for Washington D.C.?
There is no way to tell the story of Washington, D.C., without telling the story of Metropolitan AME. The cornerstone was laid in 1881, building completed in 1886. We have been five blocks from the White House for 176 years. Our job is to return to being a central voice in Washington, D.C., for the interpretation of the Gospel.