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Heritage Sunday: A sacred past, a promising future


By John W. Coleman

First Street-Peck-Wesley United Methodist Church
First Street-Peck-Wesley United Methodist Church

"We're so excited about our 180th anniversary here at First Street-Peck-Wesley because we've been through so many challenges," reflected the Rev. Martha Orphe, first female pastor of the United Methodist congregation in New Orleans. "But we've never lost our sense of purpose: to serve God in this community. This is sacred ground."

Orphe is part of a new video about African-American Methodist history in the South Central Jurisdiction. She recounted the beginnings of First Street, established in 1833, and Wesley, started in 1838, as initially interracial churches built and maintained by the slaves who worshipped there. In 2007, the congregations merged with nearby Peck United Methodist Church, partly because of destruction caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"It's an amazing history, and God has blessed us all these years to still be on this corner serving this community," she said, citing numerous past and present outreach and nurture ministries.

Among the earliest was the tiny Bible Institute started in 1865. It eventually became part of United Methodist-related Dillard University.

Today's outreach includes after-school and weekend youth activities, assistance for homeless and hungry neighbors, a community crime-watch program, outdoor worship on Sunday afternoons and Shalom Zone ministries.

First Street-Peck-Wesley is where people have come for almost two centuries to find what they need most from God and from one another, Orphe said. She and the congregation honor their church as sacred space more for its service to God and community than for its survival and longevity. "I know of your past," she told the congregation when she arrived in 2009. "Now tell me about your future."

It is a place of pilgrimage and prophecy, of spiritual formation and social transformation. Indeed, it is a place—a church—that values its faithful heritage as the sure foundation of a future with hope.

John Coleman is a United Methodist communications specialist and producer of the "We've Come This Far by Faith" video series.

'We've Come This Far by Faith'

"We've Come This Far by Faith" is a series of five, 30-minute videos from the African-American Methodist Heritage Center, based at the General Commission on Archives and History in Madison, N.J. Surveying more than two centuries of black participation in American Methodism, each video focuses on a jurisdiction in the United States. The videos focusing on the South Central and Southeastern jurisdictions are scheduled for release in May.

Celebrating 'The Power of Place'

"The Power of Place: The Contemporary Mission of Heritage Landmarks and Historic Sites" is the theme for Heritage Sunday 2013 on May 19. It reminds United Methodists of 46 heritage landmarks set by the General Conference and almost 500 historic sites determined by annual conferences.

The General Commission on Archives and History urges United Methodists to consider what it means to experience God in sacred spaces that can enhance efforts of evangelism, mission and social transformation. The history of the landmarks and sites can inspire faithful living and inform inquirers about meaningful ministry.

General Conference sets Heritage Sunday on Aldersgate Day (May 24) or the preceding Sunday. Many local churches remember their history on an anniversary or homecoming Sunday.

Even though the denominational date reminds United Methodists of John Wesley's "heartwarming experience" at a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, it can also recall Philip Otterbein's and Jacob Albright's experiences of God's grace that led to the evangelical revival among German-speaking people in the late 18th century.

The Discipline states, "Heritage Sunday calls the Church to remember the past by committing itself to the continuing call of God."

More information about the heritage landmarks is on the Archives and History website,

The Rev. Robert J. Williams is general secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History.