Mother AME Zion Church reopens after 2 years | The Black Church

Kristein Belaen and Caroline Thys, who live in Belgium, recently came to New York City for the very first time. On the list of places to see in their travelers' guide was Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem.

"We were very interested to see it," Belaen said, explaining why they came.

Founded In 1796, the congregation is recognized as the oldest Black church in the city and state. But its origins date back to even before America was born. The church was formed in the 1770s as an anti-slavery establishment that masqueraded as a church in cooperation with sympathetic Abolitionists. To that end, Mother Zion — as the church came to be called — was also known as the North's "Grand Depot" of the Underground Railroad.

"In those days in New York, no more than three Black people could gather without white supervision. There were religious exceptions to that rule," Rev. Dr. Malcolm J. Byrd, the church pastor, told Fox 5 News. "So white authorities thought we were down there singing and shouting — we were. But while someone was singing and shouting, there was a meeting going on in the corner about where the safe houses were in New York City." 

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In Mother Zion's 226-year history, the list of members who have called it home is a lesson in Black history all by itself: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Madam C.J. Walker, and Paul Robeson, to name a few.

Byrd became church pastor in the summer of 2019 but eight months into his tenure, Mother Zion was forced to close its doors when New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The church lost nearly two dozen of its members during the pandemic. But on Sunday, March 13, Fox 5 News was there as Mother Zion welcomed back its members in person for the first time since the pandemic, exactly two years to the day. The service started with just 75 parishioners and will gradually increase while still prioritizing the health and safety of the congregation. 

"We have been out of the building for two years and I was so happy to come in and praise the Lord for this Sunday, our first Sunday back," parishioner Lovell Jackson said.

As Mother Zion reopens its doors to the community, Byrd said among the priorities is making sure the church's legacy as a spiritual safe haven continues to be shared across Harlem, the city, and the world.

Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church | 140 W. 137th St., New York, N.Y. 10030 | 212-234-5700

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