Meanwhile, church usher Darwin Curry was upstairs at his post passing out programs, guiding people to their seats. The Rev. Ronald E. Braxton, the church’s pastor, was walking to the pulpit to begin delivering a service flowing deep with culture, spiritual tradition and activism that dates to the inception of the denomination. Later, Solomon Palmer would set up the basement, getting ready for the men’s 9:30 a.m. Bible class.
Meet the “Mighty Men of Metropolitan,” as they are fondly called by their congregation. They are the backbone of one of Washington’s oldest black churches and for decades have led educational and social justice programs for the fabled congregation. Carrying on in the tradition of the African American men who founded the church in the mid-19th century, the men of Metropolitan have created a special brotherhood that has come to define the church’s identity.
“It is very clear that the men of Metropolitan have a clear sense of mission and ministry in the spirit of Richard Allen,” Braxton said, referring to the church’s founder, who established the church in 1838.
On Sunday, Metropolitan AME will celebrate its 175th anniversary as a spiritual venue for abolitionist and civil rights pioneers from Frederick Douglass to Ernest Green, who helped desegregate schools in Little Rock in 1957. And it will be the men, once again, who lead the celebration, helping solidify the church as one of the clarion voices of social change in the city.
Church leaders said they will use the anniversary to refocus their core principles. “No church can thrive on history alone,” Braxton said during a recent sermon in which he challenged people to take the anniversary theme to heart: “On the Solid Rock: We stand. We serve.”
The men of ministry have created a series of programs to help develop the minds and hearts of Washington’s most vulnerable populations. And while many churches engage in such ministries, Metropolitan prides itself on having its programs led by its legacy of black men. On Sundays, for instance, the church provides services for young men incarcerated at Oak Hill juvenile prison. During the week, it provides street ministry around the city.
Other men of the church visit New Beginnings, a youth detention center in Laurel.
Rollie Kimbrough, a co-chairman of the church’s “Pipeline to Prison” program, says the men are involved in multiple ways to decrease the number of black men behind bars. “The goal is to formulate strategies to reduce the incarceration rate for people of color,” Kimbrough said.
There are also men with regular duties who feed the homeless and provide other services in the community.
“Metropolitan, with all that rich history, it gives me perspective because I can see our journey” as a people, said assistant pastor Jonathan Newton. “Metropolitan represents our collective struggle. When I think about the things that have happened in this church at different points, how we separated ourselves, how we came together, the anniversary — when you mix it with the Trayvon [Martin] case,[it] shows that we have come a long way but we have a ways to go.”
In April, the men of the church held a Silent March from the church to Freedom Plaza to protest the high number of incarcerated black men. Guy Charity and Kimbrough are co-chairmen of the church’s “Reclamation Ministry,” which helps incarcerated men reenter society.
“The ministry is very important because it touches a lot of youth,” said Richard Corley, a member of the Mighty Men of Metropolitan. “We pray for them and their families. We talk about life skills.”
But aside from the community service that is led by the men, the men also support each other in understanding their love of the Word. After the early service, about two dozen men filed into the basement of the church for the men’s Bible class, which was taught by Solomon Palmer. For about an hour, the men wrestled with scripture and current events as Palmer attempted to stir people up with thought-provoking questions.
“This whole summer we are talking about worship. What is real worship?” Palmer asked the class. “We have got to be careful and not give mixed signals about what true worship is. We often mix worship with religion. You will probably find religion one time in the Bible, but we spend a lot of time talking about religion.”
As Palmer talked, seated around the table were men from all walks of life, from a retired Howard University cardiologist to William Borders, a longtime Washington trial lawyer.
“This church is a refuge. It is an inspiration. It is everything to me in terms of dealing with the trials and tribulations that I have. Everybody in here has trials and tribulations,” Borders said. “We come here to be here with other brothers with similar thoughts to be able to deal with these trials and tribulations.”
Geoffrey Tate, president of the Mighty Men of Metropolitan, said that the work of the men is part of the church’s 175 year old tradition. “As sons of [Richard] Allen, we are doing no more than he would do if he were alive at this time in terms of our social ministries.”