Thursday, May 26, 2011
sixty-fourth visit: May 29th 2011 African Methodist Episcopal Zion Christianity
John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church
(abandoned, 1993 Designated Historic Landmark)
594 Herron Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15219
As mentioned, recently I have been attending Jewish services, leading to my artist residency in Germany. I also mentioned that I was hoping to fit this in: one observance of (Christian) services-past, where I’ll simply sit in remembrance of what once happened in that spot. Since I’ll probably be doing a lot of this during my travels. It does fit it in, time-wise. And here is its story. On a sweltering Sunday morning, at the exact time of the day during which a pastor's preaching once sounded within the sanctuary walls, I sit on the front porch of an old, beautiful abandoned church in Pittsburgh's Hill District. I spend some time thinking. And I write this:
This is a neighborhood where people notice things. During my first round of grad school, a classmate and friend of mine spoke about introducing her boyfriend, Rick, to her hometown of Louisville KY, for the first time. Rick had grown up in NYC. "He did not understand," she said, "that if you parked your car to hike up a hill with someone no one had ever seen before, half the town would know about it by the time you had hiked back down." It is like that in the Hill District, or so it feels today, as I hand-write this on site.
A few minutes ago I parked my car on a side street and walked toward the church. "Better park your car on the main through-way," called a woman from the yard across the street, sitting in a lawn chair, fanning herself. I oblige. She nodds. I feel watched.
I can't shake my consciousness of cars passing. Are they slowing for the sake of traffic laws, or to gawk at me? I can't imagine I'm that easily visible, as far back as this church sits from the street, hugged by hedges. But if I want to know, I have to look up from my writing each time: could be either; only one of the roads at the "T" intersection has a stop sign. I had thought I would be spending a few hours lost in my head, conjuring up ghost-voices from services past. I try. What was it like, the talks about saving this structure, about keeping it in use? The emotions the day that this was confronted: that there were no more sources of giving and the worshipers had no choice but to let their building go? Places and bodies forever hold their happenings.
So I sit on the porch and let the past settle around me, thankful to be surrounded by concrete and brick, providing a coolness of castle-like air.
This, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (a denomination established in the US arguably in 1796), is not to be confused with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, though both exist as a response to racial discrimination—their congregations African-American, and through the first quarter of the 19th century, their pastors Caucasian.
The story goes that this particular church is "one of Pittsburgh's oldest African-American faith organizations." (Wiki) In '94, '06 and '08 attempts were made to resolve flooding caused by an abandoned mine running under the church. Efforts eventually failed, expenses overwhelmed, and the church too, was abandoned.
Did I mention that this is a neighborhood where people notice things? They have to in order to survive. I had to when I lived in Baltimore. That portion of me is alert today. And so the moment his dress-shoes hit the concrete path leading to my porch, I notice. My alarm is hushed immediately, though. Another sense I developed in Baltimore: to recognize safety. He is Pastor TJ. He introduces himself and asks for my name at least twice during our conversation. Of the two of us, who is the nervous one? I ask if he was involved in this church when it was in operation. Yes. I tell him I think it's beautiful here. He tells me to come to his current church, down the street, at the YMCA, where he preaches. I tell him I will. And how long have I been sitting here? And did I walk here and where am I from? The whole time, he does not ask what I am doing. I tell him that I hope he does not mind that I'm just spending some time here on the old porch, writing. He shakes his head and waves my sentence away before it has fully left my mouth. I think he has the senses, too. He paces the porch while we talk, checking the lock on the door at one end, and then at the other. Yanking. With noise. Twice. Before he turns to go he says to me: "Be careful." Twice.
I am certain: Someone is watching me and sent him.
Back in Fall 2010, I passed this building and stopped in hopes of learning when services are held, or to jot down a phone number, in hopes to attend. I left not certain whether the church was still holding services and continued my research at home. I found a website asking for donations for necessary repairs in order to bring the church back to working status. I left an unanswered message at the number provided there. I also decided that this did not mean that I could not visit.
Earlier this morning, I looked for the donation site again. It too, had been abandoned.
In two days I give up my spaces here to live in another part of the world for a bit, to work on this project, to learn about the religious culture there and to think about the history of place.