As I was making my way north from a conference, across from the Delaware River I happened upon something “hidden in plain sight.” How I missed this before, I can only speculate.

Anyway, at the Conference, in 2016 in Dover, Delaware, we United Methodists had celebrated the bicentennial of the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] church. Its founder, in Philadelphia, was Bishop Rev. Richard Allen, a former slave. He is rightly called “Freedom’s Prophet” for his work in and beyond the church. Now Methodists already have a mixed history when it comes to slavery and race in general. Then on my homeward way I was given much more to ponder.

You see, my childhood home is in Lower Alloways Creek, in South Jersey. I knew it was a most-overlooked marshland. This native son is beginning to discover to what extent. To this very day, relatively little is written about Rev. Allen and this gathering. Words that come to mind are seminal, historic, even providential. It started a whole new Protestant denomination; it was a nonviolent response to a sad act of rejection at the altar of a Methodist church. Though black worshippers had been forcibly removed, Allen did not respond in kind. As a dynamic leader, he upheld Methodism not only for his own, but for all peoples. The family of Inclusive Membership was somehow preserved moving forward.

Many AME churches followed; most, as one might suppose, in the South. However, there was one unlikely follower at the meeting, specially invited. Perhaps it was because he was of mixed ethnicity, perhaps it was his home just over the “Mason-Dixon” line, but in any event, Reuben Cuff answered the call to be there. Cuff founded of the first AME church in New Jersey, and was soon consecrated Deacon by Allen. He “rode the circuit” as Methodists do.

There are many footsteps in which to follow. Some we are yet to realize. My journey may lead me back to the fields of asparagus in Canton, mainly across from the Cuff cemetery. Also to another near the still-standing Cuff homestead. To get to the nearest of many churches founded by Deacon Cuff, Mt. Pisgah, one would have to keep going, 6 miles to Salem, a way that Cuff trod often.

It is the oldest black church in the whole state; here a journey can be continued, or just begin.

Meetinghouse is a community storytelling project hosted by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

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