Mt. Moriah's 118th anniversary shines with the spirit of its deaconess, 88 Church, she says, 'keeps you right'

June 18, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff writer

The soul of Mt. Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church rests in Hattie Williams, 88.

As the Annapolis church, one of the city's oldest black congregations, celebrates its 118th anniversary this week, Mrs. Williams has been telling stories.

Mt. Moriah's oldest active member talks about a time when nothing but church was open on Sunday, so everybody went. She recalls the awe she felt for church stewardesses, the women who wore starched white dresses and draped the communion table in fine linen.

When the Rev. J. M. Gibson asked Mrs. Williams to serve as a stewardess in the 1950s, she thought, " 'I'm not good enough.' I thought you had to be a saint, the way they looked in their white."

For the last 15 years, "Mother Hattie," the church's only deaconess, has prayed with church members over the phone, often for many hours a day.

"I don't think people nowadays know the value of getting together," she says.

"They think they can set at home and look at a TV and get as much, but you can't. You got to have fellowship with other Christians."

Mt. Moriah has been offering that fellowship since 1803, when free blacks built a meeting house in Annapolis, called the First A.M.E. Church. The group joined a movement of independent Methodists called Bethel churches. In the 1830s, the church disappeared from records.

The 118th anniversary dates to the official founding of Mr. Moriah in 1875, when a brick structure was erected on Franklin Street.

The congregation worshiped there for nearly 100 years; the building now houses the Banneker-Douglass Museum.

Today, in a church built on Bay Ridge Avenue about 25 years ago, Mt. Moriah, with about 350 active members, continues its long heritage of faith under the leadership of the Rev. J. W. Williams, the church's 22nd pastor.

There are choirs, women's groups, groups to visit the sick, a community outreach through the arts and a men's group called the Sons of Allen, which works to provide leadership to young people in the church and community, especially young men.

Church member Dolores Queene in 1987 started a volunteer tutorial center in Annapolis to provide free tutoring for elementary school students. A scholarship committee, established by Shirley J. Reed in 1979, has raised funds to send church members to college. The group's yearly budget has grown from $200 to $3,000.

For many members of Mt. Moriah, the weekly services form a moral foundation, something solid in an unstable world.

The Rev. Douglas Wood, assistant pastor, says Mt. Moriah helped him find his way back to God.

"The Devil had destroyed 90 percent of my life, and I was thinking about turning to the streets," he says. "Crisis brought me into the church. But from the first time I walked into Mt. Moriah, I have not been able to not go back [to church]."

The Rev. Evelyn L. Speed, assistant pastor, says perhaps the only community left in a transient world is the church.

"In an old-fashioned community, mother and grandmother were in the house baking bread and the men were out chopping wood or whatever. Everybody had a feeling of their place in the community," she says. "But that's gone; the connection with who lives on your street is no longer there. We're realizing that our community is not our block anymore. Our community is our church family."

The thread of connectedness continues, she says, not only through people like Mrs. Williams, who still prays for people in her home, but also through baby boomers finding their place in the church.

Faye Gaskin, in her early 30s, is head of the Sunday School. Kim Noel, 34, has worked with the youth and elderly.

Says Ms. Gaskin: "It's a place to go to find peace. When there's a lot of turmoil in everyday life, it's like being in a close-knit family."

As for Mrs. Williams, neither asthma nor failing eyesight will keep her from the church.

It's a place you "can't do without," she says. "This is what the church does: It keeps you right."

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