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Dwindling African Moravian Church Celebrates Its Rich History


At the St. Philips African Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, each person lights a candle before singing the final hymn. There was a community Lovefeast yesterday at the St. Philips African Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. The congregation and guests shared cups of coffee and sweetened buns. "It goes back to when you have friends and family, you break bread together," says John Jackman, the pastor of another Moravian church in the city. "You share a meal. And so we have a simple meal." (Pictured: Moravian women deliver sweetened buns, baked at the nearby Winkler Bakery, to the congregation.) Jackman's is one of 13 Moravian churches in the area, and he came to celebrate at St. Philips. He said the Lovefeast is a song service tied together with a variety of traditional Christian hymns. The Lovefeast service dates back to the early days of the Moravian church. This Protestant group formed in the 15th Century in what is now the Czech Republic. By the 18th Century, the Moravians had migrated to the United States, and in 1766, they founded the settlement of Salem in North Carolina. At that time, the Moravian church owned slaves. It believed that the Bible justified slavery. But it condemned individual church members from owning slaves in a large part to preseve work ethic. According to Moravian archivist Daniel Crews, the church believed its members, "might get used to the idea that somebody else does the work." The sanctuary, with old wooden pews, well-worn floors, and two old stoves, is decorated very simply for the service. But because the community was growing, labor was needed, so the church leased slaves out to its white congregation. But it wasn't a typical slave/owner relationship. The slaves became members of the white church and worshipped there. They were buried in the white cemetery. These slaves learned how to read and speak the Moravians' German language. Jon Sensbach, a history professor at the University of Florida, recognizes the uncharacteristic nature of this social setup in Salem. "It was a very unusual case of baptized, black Christians, many of whom spoke German, being integrated into this German-American immigrant community," says Sensbach. (Pictured: Each person lights a candle before singing the final hymn.) But that wouldn't last. And that brings us back to St. Philips Church. As Segregation gained hold in the early 19th Century, the Moravians' inclusive attitude toward integration changed. In 1816, they banned blacks from being buried in the white cemetery. And in 1822, they segregated the church, agreeing to build a separate log church where blacks could worship. This was the beginning of the St. Philips congregation. And in 1861, they built the St. Philips African Moravian Church that still stands today in the historic community of Old Salem. "At one time, back in 1967, we had as many as 150 to 200 members," says Dorothy Pettus (pictured: on left), a member of the current St. Philips congregation, "A lot of them grew up, went to college, moved away, and we lost that generation." Pettus is an African-American Moravian. Now, Moravians in this country are rare. There are only 40 to 50,000 members. And African-American Moravians make up a very tiny percentage of that total. St. Philips Church is only one of a handful of African-American Moravian churches in the U.S. And, as Dorothy mentioned, St. Philips is shrinking. Today, they only average 25 to 30 people attending their Sunday services. One of those faithful few is Lethia Coleman (pictured: on right). She is in her early 70s, and she's been a member of St. Philips for over 60 years. She recalls her attraction to the Moravian service, even when she was an 8-year-old little girl. "I like the quiet time," says Coleman. "The quiet service. Even as a kid I was notI like my 'upbeat' at the party. When I come to church, I need a quiet time, and I like this." Yesterday, almost 200 people joined in the Lovefeast at St. Philips. Most were Moravians, black and white, from churches all over the area. And, in between the hymns, there were many quiet moments. The St. Philips African Moravian Church was built in 1861 in the Greek Revival style.