By Chris Edwards, CEO 2nd Life Media/Roadrunner Emporium, Alamogordo reprint from New Mexico Influence Magazine – April May Edition
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.” – John Wesley’
John Wesley was an English cleric, theologian, and evangelist, who was a leader of a revival movement within the Church of England known as Methodism. The societies he founded became the dominant form of the independent Methodist movement that continues to this day.
While researching this article on the “influence” of the Black Church in Alamogordo, we reached to the leadership of several of Alamogordo’s Black churches. I was surprised that the Reverend Warren Robinson of Alamogordo’s Owen’s AME Church provided me the quote above from a Caucasian theologian born in 1703 as the starting point of my journey of exploration. But in reading into the quote and speaking with the various pastors and theologians the path Reverend Robinson was sending me down was to understand the meaning of “service,” and that service expands well beyond the confines of a “Black Church” or any church for that matter.
When one researches the American Black experience, the fights for social justice and American society, it becomes clear that no pillar of the African American community has been more central to history, identity, and social justice than the “Black Church. Reverend Robinson made it very clear to me that in Alamogordo, “there is no single voice speaking as the Black Church”, just as there is no Black religion.
Pastor Mark Anthony Phillips of Alamogordo’s Holy Temple Church of God in Christ emphasized that the church is about” traditions and faith”, and that laws and societal norms may change, “but the foundation of faith is still and will always remain consistent in scripture.” Pastor Phillips served in the US Airforce for 24 years and then was called to serve as a pastor. In 2000 he was ordained and in 2018 became head pastor of his congregation.
Pastor Johnnie L Walker leader of Alamogordo’s New Covenant Worship Center concurs that the “foundation of the church and the teachings of God and Jesus are the foundation but that the approach to spread the word is much different than times of the past.” Pastor Walker as the newest pastor of Alamogordo’s Black Church community is viewed by many in the Black faith community as representing the “next generation of pastoral leadership for Alamogordo.” Pastor Walker’s outreach is more technologically progressive than the church of the past. He says some sermons over half of his participants are online, yet a challenge is they are not as engaged as an in-person service. Pastor Phillips emphasis was, “that there is no true substitution, to an in-person worship service”, but admits for the church, Black or otherwise, “to stay relevant, we must all evolve in approach, all the while sticking to the fundamentals of faith.”
The Black Church This is Our Story, This is Our Song; a book by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tells the reader that “the traditions and faiths that fall under the umbrella of African American religion, particularly Christianity, constitute two stories; one of a people defining themselves in the presence of a higher power and the other of their journey for freedom and equality in a land where power itself-and even humanity-for so long was (and still is) denied them.”
“Collectively, these churches make up the oldest institution created and controlled by African Americans and as such they are more than simply places of worship. In the centuries since its birth in the time of slavery, the Black Church has stood as the foundation of Black religious, political, economic, and social life. For those who lived through slavery followed by Jim Crow racism, the church provided a refuge: a place of racial and individual self-affirmation, of teaching and learning, of psychological and spiritual sustenance, of faith and a symbolic space where black people, enslaved and free, could nurture the hope for a better today and a much better tomorrow.”
As a white male that grew up in the south, I witnessed the aftereffects of the implementation of the civil rights act. I was bussed, had one of the first black teachers in a white school in Memphis, and I saw firsthand, racism in action. I witnessed the influence on my classmates, my peers, and my generation in the aftermath of Jim Crow, my generation would refer to this period as a “cleanup phase”, cleaning up the mistakes of past generations. This was the generation that was supposed to bridge racism, that was to rebuild a community that did not see color, race nor creed and our generation was the transitional generation. However, in many ways it seems we have failed in that aspiration, thus the evolution of Black Lives Matters.
The influence of the Black Church has always been one of a “safe-house” for people of color. But its mission today has moved well beyond that, to one of “service to a broader community.” Interestingly, all these years later, when I attend a church service, I seek the “Black Church” as my refuge. I find the “Black Church” to be more welcoming, less judgmental, and more spiritually enlightening to my void in faith, and that is why this story is important to me.
Alamogordo’s Black Church community has a history that followed a parallel path to the rest of the country. The Black community upon the founding of Alamogordo was a segregated community. The schools were segregated with Corinth also referred to as the Delaware School, created for Black youth, and the Dudley School for Hispanic youth. Alamogordo well ahead of most school systems nationwide and began desegregation early, 1946 for Hispanic youth and 1950 for Black Youth.
The building that once housed the Black Children, as Corinth School is now part of the structure that makes up Corinth Baptist Church which is under the leadership of Reverend James E. Forney. The property on which the present church stands was purchased from the school system after desegregation. Today, 94 years since its founding in 1928, Corinth is a symbol of the “city that sits on a hill” with “the light of her various ministries shedding rays throughout this community, state, nation and even in foreign fields-a beacon beckoning to all who have a need of her love and protection” according to its pastor.
Owen Chapel AME Church was established in 1939 in Alamogordo. The church started in the homes of faithful member who were determined to establish an African Methodist Episcopal presence in this area. The history of that gathering was strong enough for the African Methodist Episcopal church to supply a pastor and a relationship with the greater church organization. The history and the activities of Owen Chapel AME church are rich and varied. Pastor Warren Robinson leads the church with a mission of service to the community and one of inclusion and diversity. Though Robinson leads a predominately black congregation with an emphasis on the historical importance of the history of the church to the black experience, his preaching style is one of inclusion of ALL people and a celebration of diversity within the Alamogordo community. His experience in building bridges of understanding between diverse groups is his trademark. Owen A.M.E is the most diverse congregation in Alamogordo. Robinson has received the President George Bush’s Call to Service Award/USA Freedom Corps. He was awarded the Alamogordo Rotary Paul Harris Fellow Award and was given the Office of African American Affairs Everyday Hero Award in 2019. He lives service in his daily actions.
My question to the pastors of Alamogordo’s Black Church community revolves around the “Influence of the Black Church” in modern society. Is the Black Church relevant as we move forward decade’s past slavery, Jim Crow, the marches on Selma and the implementation of the civil rights act and the new youth empowerment by groups such as Black Lives Matter?
The response from all of Alamogordo’s pastors was that yes indeed the “Black Church” is relevant and does indeed still have “influence.” “That influence is as a servant to the community, we as pastors must be more community involved, listen more, talk less we must go where God is and where God is needed,” explained Pastor Phillps. He continued, “it used to be that the women wore beautiful hats and men wore their Sunday best, now we dress down, dress comfortable, welcome and we listen.” Pastor Johnnie Walker explained, “we must get outside our church walls, hit the streets and remind folks there is still an answer there it is hope to solve needs.”
Alamogordo’s Black Pastoral leadership has taken service to heart and each leader is moving their mission forward in a variety of ways.
Pastor Walker has a newly acquired church building that will soon host a new school. The Phoenix Learning Academy team will provide an intensive academic program with a focal point and emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). This STEM model will call for Project/Problem Based Learning lessons, capstone projects, and enrichment learning programs with student activity periods. PLTW (Project Lead the Way) Launch curriculum will also be implemented at the elementary grades, providing strategies for students to adopt a design-thinking mindset through compelling activities, projects, and problems that bring learning to life. This is certainly meeting a community need with thinking outside the box and leadership in implementation by the “Black Church.”
The Joy Center Alamogordo recently hosted a groundbreaking for an expanded 12,000 square foot campus with childcare facilities and more to better serve the greater needs of Alamogordo.
Pastor Robinson has served on a variety of non-profit boards across the community, as the police and hospital chaplain and has now thrown his name into contention as a candidate for Magistrate Judge.
Each pastor is expanding their use of technology, reaching an audience through expanded offerings of service to the Alamogordo community and are reminded daily that the traditions and the stability of the church ultimately bring people home to the church. People still get married, people still die and need funerals for closure and solace, the traditions and rituals of familiarity are there when the people need them. For Maya Angelou, like the other members of her generation, the words of the King James Bible, the power of the Negro Spirituals, and the sermonic tradition of the Black church were the vernacular language and soundtrack of black life and a safe home. As the crosses carried by the civil rights generation are past to the shoulders of the Black Lives Matter generation, churches and their leaders must evolve with the faithful. The evolution of the Black Church is quietly on display in Alamogordo for those enlightened or informed enough to see it and its “understated influence through service.”