Over 125 years, Tacoma’s oldest black church has nurtured souls, fed the needy and stood up against injustice, from its humble beginnings in a basement to its home in the heart of the Hilltop.
Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church will celebrate a milestone anniversary Sunday (Oct. 19) and a legacy of community involvement.
Over the decades, ministers and members spoke out and marched for civil rights and ending discrimination. In 1988, the congregation took a stand against drug dealing and gang violence by moving to an area surrounded by those problems.
Today, it runs a twice-weekly food pantry and gives out toys and clothes to families at Christmas. Next month, the congregation plans to open a thrift store near the church offering new and used clothing.
“I think Allen has done so much for Tacoma,” said Victoria Woodards, a Tacoma City Council member and a member of Allen A.M.E. Church. “Allen has always been a real advocate for change in the city and a supporter of the city.”
A four-day celebration for the 250-member congregation will culminate with two services Sunday.
At a rousing revival service Thursday evening, about 60 people sang and swayed with the choir’s music, raised their arms in worship and walked forward to be prayed for at the end of the nearly two-hour event.
The Rev. David Brown, the guest minister, congratulated the church on its longevity and said Tacoma is a better place because of Allen A.M.E. Church.
“125 years is a long time to do anything,” said Brown of Tacoma.
The Rev. Spencer Barrett, Allen A.M.E. Church’s pastor since 2009, said the anniversary is “a testimony to God’s goodness to this church and to the African American community in the Tacoma area.” It’s a recognition of “125 years of identifying injustices in our community and bringing them to light to the larger community,” he said in an interview.
Jim Walton, a former Tacoma city manager, described Allen A.M.E. Church as a “beacon.”
“I think of Allen A.M.E. as one of the bedrocks of our spiritual life in Tacoma over this time,” Walton said. “It has served as a rallying point for many of the African American pioneers who moved through this area.”
The church’s outreach includes:
• Allen’s food pantry has operated for more than 20 years, said Mary Barrett, who runs the pantry at the church and is married to Spencer Barrett. In 11 months through June, the pantry helped 6,203 households, including repeat visitors.
• Christmas House, a program providing needy families with toys and clothing in mid-December, also has been a community staple for more than 20 years. Last year, 390 families received help.
• Last Thanksgiving, the church gave out 139 baskets with turkeys and trimmings.
Allen A.M.E. Church also started Allen Renaissance, a separate community organization that planned to develop a community center to give middle school students increased access to new technology and performing arts facilities.
The project ran out of money, Mary Barrett said. What remains is the afterschool Computer Clubhouse of Tacoma, which includes a robotics program for students.
Kimberly Sales, who attends Allen A.M.E. with her husband and two children, said the church’s outreach follows Jesus’ words: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing.”
“When you have a love for Christ, it shows in everything you do,” said Sales, 52. “Everyone just embraces each other. They support each other. It’s a family.”
CARING FOR THE FAMILY
Members have offered spiritual support to Jesse Boozer, chairman of the trustee board. His daughter, Yolanda Willis, died in February of cancer at the age of 49.
“No parent wants to bury their child,” said Boozer, 70, a member for 31 years. “That’s something I don’t wish on anyone. It really hurts.”
But Allen A.M.E. members, including those who have also lost adult children, reached out to Boozer and his wife, Jerrie.
“They came to us letting us know, ‘You’ll never get over it, but life goes on,’ ” he said.
During the altar call and prayer time in services, Jesse Boozer walks forward with others in the red-carpeted, 300-seat sanctuary, kneels at the altar and prays. He said he’s gained some sense of peace since his daughter’s death.
Boozer, who lives in Tacoma and is retired from the construction and transportation business, sings in the men’s vocal group, called Sons of Thunder. He also attends the senior Bible class Sunday mornings.
Since retiring in 2012, he’s usually at the church six days a week, lending a hand. Sometimes, he hires people off the street for odd jobs to help them out.
“You feel a lot better about life when you can help someone along the way,” Boozer said. “It’s more blessed to give than receive.”
Earlier this month, the church put on a benefit concert for Woodards, the church’s choir director. Her house in Tacoma was gutted Aug. 30 by a fire caused by an electrical malfunction. Woodards said she has a new place to live while her house is being rebuilt.
Woodards, 49, has attended Allen since the age of 13.
Choirs from various churches performed and an offering was collected to help her. While the money from the concert helped, Woodards said, the spiritual support was more important.
“I can tell you in that moment I knew everything was going to be OK,” she said.
“They do things for families all the time,” she said. “Mine was not anything different than what they do all the time.”
Sales, who lives in Orting, also has experienced the support of Allen members.
A family nurse practitioner, she has started the long, difficult journey of training to become an ordained pastor. She already preaches occasionally at Allen and plans to attend a graduate school in theology.
“They’ve been able to come and say, ‘Just listen to (Jesus). Whatever you need, we’ll be there to give it to you,’ ” Sales said.
GOD LED THEM TO K STREET
Allen A.M.E. was founded by the Rev. A.M. Taylor and named after Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
It was organized on Oct. 9, 1889, in a meeting in a basement at 1313 Tacoma Ave.
In 1913, the congregation moved into a church building at 1411 S. Yakima Ave. In 1929, it moved to a new church at 1407 S. Yakima Ave., funded by an $11,000 donation from member George Moore. That building was torn down last year for construction of the new Nativity House, a shelter and meal program of Catholic Community Services.
In 1988, the congregation moved several blocks up the hill to 1223 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, next to a funeral home. That move made news when nearly 200 members marched to their new location on what was then called K Street.
The new church, with a sign that proclaims “Jesus Saves,” was in the middle of what was then a reputed drug-dealing area.
The Rev. Vernon Burroughs, then Allen A.M.E.’s pastor, prayed after the march.
“Thank you, Lord, for giving us the insight to move into this community,” Burroughs said. “You led us to this corner. We know there is a job to be done.”
A few people didn’t support the move. Longtime member Bessie Matthews did, and she joined the procession.
“It was a good move,” said Matthews, now 77. She’s attended Allen since the age of 7.
Matthews recalled days when discrimination was prevalent in Tacoma. In the 1940s and ’50s, stores in downtown Tacoma put up signs saying they had the right to refuse to serve people, she said.
“They just ignored you,” Matthews said. Blacks couldn’t live in Lakewood, Fircrest and Tacoma’s North End, she said.
Church members took part in civil rights marches. And Allen’s pastors worked with other Tacoma ministers to advocate for civil rights, she said.
Allen’s head pastor changes regularly; the church has had 38 pastors in 125 years. That’s because under the Methodist system, pastors are usually transferred by the region’s bishop after several years at one church.
As a result, Allen’s pastors haven’t had the long tenures of Tacoma civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Earnest S. Brazill and the Rev. Joseph A. Boles, pastors who are both deceased. But Allen’s pastors worked alongside Boles and Brazill in the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, advocating for civil rights in housing and employment.
OLDER AGE, LOWER NUMBERS
Allen has struggled with shrinking attendance. Like most mainline Protestant denominations, its membership has aged and declined in number in recent decades.
Boozer said membership has dropped by more than one-half from the 600 regular worshippers it had in the early 1980s. A total of about 150 to 200 people attend two services on Sunday mornings. A majority of members are at least 65 years old, he said.
“It seems like we have funerals every week,” he said.
Other predominantly black churches in Tacoma have fared better in terms of attendance. Tacoma Christian Center has around 800 people on Sundays. St. John Church Transformation Ministries International draws about 1,400.
While everyone is welcome to attend Allen A.M.E., about 90 percent of the congregation is black. The congregation needs to become more ethnically diverse “to continue to build God’s kingdom by showing God’s love to all God’s children,” Sales said.
The problem, Matthews said, is that people generally aren’t as interested in attending churches these days.
“People aren’t as into church as they were when I was growing up,” Matthews said. “It’s sad but it’s true.”
Matthews said the anniversary is a time to celebrate the past and the future of Allen A.M.E. Church.
“By the grace of God, we’ve come to 125 years,” she said. “It will still be there another 125 years. I won’t be there to see it, but somebody will.”