A funny thing happened on the way to Pastor Terry Marks teaching former Hindus in India on the art of Christian baptism.
During a mission trip to Chennai (formerly Madras), he worked with a translator to instruct young ministers on the techniques of baptism by full-body immersion. “I talked to them about baptism being symbolic of your death and the resurrection of Christ — and going down into the waters and coming up again,” he said.
Trouble was, the students were continually pinning their subjects underwater. “I said, 'You can’t hold them down. It is a symbolic death. It’s a spiritual transformation, so you’ve got to bring them back up!’ ” They all got a laugh in the effort of learning a key rite of Christianity.
Marks, pastor of Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, calls that one of the “little things” that needs to be understood after conversion from one religion to another.
When the predominantly black congregation marks Founder’s Day on Feb. 10 and Black History Month on Feb. 24, it will celebrate its latest quest to move outward to serve others, this time the mission work in India. One of the previous moves outward came in 1997 when growth forced the church to leave its home of 78 years in downtown Mesa and move into the former River of Life Church, 7040 S. 40th St., Phoenix, one mile west of Tempe. Today the congregation totals about 350. (www.mygreaterbethel.org)
“The African American Episcopal Church is the oldest black Christian congregation and denomination in the U.S.,” Marks, 49, notes. It traces its beginnings to 1787 in Philadelphia when three freed slaves were praying at St. George Methodist Episcopal Church and were abruptly “pulled off their knees and asked to go up to the balcony to finish their prayers,” Marks said.
Richard Allen, one of the first freed slaves of the Revolutionary War period, began holding church in the livery stable of a blacksmith shop instead. (Thus the anvil in the church’s symbol.)
He called it Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a name similar to Marks’ church today. In 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal denomination was formally organized.
That heritage was shared in India when Marks and his wife, Antoinette, traveled Nov. 12-19 with a delegation of 100 people from other churches from around the U.S. It was led by the church’s bishop, John Bryant of St. Louis, prelate for its Fifth Episcopal District, which covers 14 Western states.
Terry Marks, whose travels were funded in large part from such simple fundraisers as carwashes, was the leader of the delegation’s administrative team, charged with laying out schedules and travel.
In India, the group teamed with Sarah and Abraham Pedinny, who have worked for years developing such churches, now totaling 20.
All 100 participants from the U.S. took an extra suitcase stuffed with donated T-shirts, shoes, hygiene products and more.
Seeing the mountain of suitcases stacked on an open-bed truck in Chennai after their arrival brought soaring emotion for all, Marks said.
“I don’t know if I have ever cried so much or with so many tears,” Marks said. “When we reached the airport, and they looked upon us and welcomed 'AME India,’ we were just overwhelmed. ... You would see men and women just in tears.”
They worked among the churches and found acceptance as a predominantly black group evangelizing in a Hindu nation.
“It is like Paul did on his missionary journeys,” Marks said.
“Those that embraced our religion and our belief did so in many cases under threat of being placed outside of their communities and being disowned by their families,” he said.
They went up against the traditional Indian caste system in which people “believe they are destined to stay,” in contrast with Christian teachings that promote the breakdown of barriers of separation, he said. Catholic and Pentecostal churches are primarily the only other Christian institutions that Marks said he saw in that part of southeastern India. While the group’s churches are typically small and modest, often only walls, bamboo roofs and open sides, Indian members take great pride in what they have built.
They worked with 28 Indian seminary students who were subsequently ordained as ministers.
Marks told how Bryant shared with the new pastors that the churches “have always been a self-help church, and you have made a decision to be part of it. We are not a church that will shower you with money” nor dominate sister churches in countries like India. “We have come to be your brothers and sisters so that you will be beside us.”
The American missionaries seek to be partners on equal footing with the Indians and share a message of inclusion. “We are a church that started off with roots of African-Americans, but we are a church that has all racial backgrounds in our membership.”
Fourteen months ago, Antoinette Marks joined a missionary delegation to Zambia in south central Africa, where they converted an abandoned warehouse into a clinic to treat AIDS patients.
“We are now a church that has been able to lead our congregation toward thinking not only in our community but globally, so this is our beginning in taking part in what AME has done historically,” Terry Marks said.
Currently housing Heavenly Hands child care center, it is planning a charter school on campus. Members of other Valley African Methodist Episcopal churches will descend on Greater Bethel for the Founder’s Day on Feb. 10 and pay tribute to Richard Allen, their founder.