On 137th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the oldest black church in the US, having been founded in 1796. In the 1800′s it was well known as “the freedom church”, as it became a safe haven for blacks who escaped slavery in the south and immigrated to the northeast, often without money or a plan to survive. Given it’s long history in helping those in need, it’s no wonder Mother AME Zion sports a sign that advertises the James L. Varick Community Center just down the street, and gives it’s office hours. When I went inside, I had the chance to talk to Lee Brown, a long-time member of the AME church and also a part-time secretary on week-days. Brown, who is in his 80′s and came to Harlem in 1955, told me that the Community Center works with a local drug abuse rehabilitation center on 145th and Broadway. He says the rehabilitation center reached out to Mother AME Zion when those looking for medical help began to seek spiritual guidance to accompany their physical withdrawals. Having been an addict himself in his early twenties (Brown does not specify of what), he says AME has been a huge support system for him.
Other interesting features of AME Zion is their weekly political activism meetings and their enourmous Wick’s organ, which was specially designed for the church. AME focuses not only on community outreach, but as a gathering place outside of Sunday services for artistic and intellectual engagement.
Lastly, I noticed that on the block where AME Zion is located, there were 4 different signs warning local kids not to play basketball in the neighborhood. When I asked Brown about this, he said he thinks it’s because a lot of the youth basketball teams in the neighborhood are formed by the teenagers who attend AME and talk about setting up games and practices when they meet for saturday services, and then later go over game plays on Sundays after Sunday services. He says sometimes they bring their balls with them to service because they plan to go play afterwards at a court, but recently it’d become a distraction in church.