No one wears shorts to Sunday morning services at St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal Church, or blue jeans either. The church has sat in the leafy shadow of Sacramento’s Southside Park for more than 50 years, and the worshippers come in their Sunday bests – men in coats and ties, women in dresses and high heels, children freshly scrubbed, their hair neatly combed or braided, many wearing shiny patent leather shoes.
St. Andrews’ pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tyrone Hicks, resplendent in a silver brocade robe that falls to his ankles, embodies the church’s tradition of respectful formality. The message – giving glory to “Our Lord God Almighty” – is not a casual affair at St. Andrews.
Nor is it a quiet one. Music – toe tapping, hand clapping and joyful – fills the air as Sunday services begin, a proud ritual unbroken since Gold Rush days.
As a child in the early 1950s, I attended Oak Park Congregational, another black church in Sacramento. The services were a bit more staid, the minister wore somber black robes and the music was not nearly as joyful. But a childhood friend’s father was the pastor at St. Andrews, so I was familiar with it. When Jean Crim, a longtime St. Andrews member, called recently to suggest I write about the church, I hesitated. What makes it special, I wondered? A great deal, as I learned after consulting local historian Clarence Caesar, who recently retired from the State Office of Historic Preservation.
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Caesar wrote his master’s thesis on blacks in Sacramento County and relies on local property records, church histories and the census to document St. Andrews’ California Historic Landmark designation as the “oldest African American church on the Pacific Coast.” The church was founded in 1850, two months before California gained statehood. Initially, its members met in the humble home of one of its founders, Daniel Blue, a laundryman. But in 1851, they built a small wooden church on Seventh Street between G and H, just across the street from where the county administration building sits today. A state historic plaque memorializes the event. According to the 1850 census, only 250 African Americans lived in Sacramento at that time. Nonetheless, the church became a major focal point of black political life in the new state.
Early members were deeply involved in opposing slavery, the most important political and moral question of the day. Though California entered the union as a free state, many Southerners who came with the Gold Rush brought their slaves with them. The church became active in efforts to prevent runaway slaves from being returned to bondage. In 1855 and 1856, St. Andrews hosted two important “California Colored Citizens State Conventions,” where the state’s earliest black residents petitioned the Legislature for basic rights – the right to vote, to testify against whites in court and to send their children to public schools.
In 1854, Sacramento’s first public school for “Negroes, Indians and Mongolians” (the term used for Asians at that time) was opened in the basement of St. Andrews, where it operated for two years until Sacramento built a school for children of color. Sacramento schools remained segregated until 1873.
Early in the 1950s, St. Andrews moved to its current location at Eighth and V streets, where its congregation remains a strong voice for social justice. That was reinforced at the 149th AME state conference, which the church hosted earlier this month. Conference participants unanimously passed a special resolution supporting President Barack Obama and condemning those responsible for the federal shutdown. Like their forebears fighting slavery, the conferees did not mince words.
“What is at work in this government shutdown, forced by a detestable radical minority group of the Republican party, known as the Tea Party, is nothing less than racism,” the resolution states. “President Obama must not give into this hostage taking of the rights of the American people; not just because the Affordable Health Care Act is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is also at stake.”
The Rev. Hicks, a retired federal government worker who helped draft the conference resolution, has been the lead pastor of St. Andrews since 2007. To remain viable and relevant, he believes the church has to be in the community and for the community. “We can’t just be a Sunday morning church.”
St. Andrews today is a small congregation, just 300 members, many of them elderly, but an active one. Its members provide Bible study and mentoring at juvenile hall. They volunteer at St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children, Mary House and the Sacramento Food Bank. They help ex-prisoners find jobs. Working with their neighbors down the street at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, they have marched for immigration reform.
And though it strives to be more than “just a Sunday morning church,” Sunday mornings at St. Andrews are glorious. The church swells with the sounds of dueling pianos that face each other from opposite sides of the altar. And the voices of the choir and the congregation rise to make what the church bulletin calls “a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Amid a soft chorus of amens from the faithful filling the pews, the Rev. Hicks preaches his sermon, reminding his flock of their Christian duty to “to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, preach the Gospel and take care of widows and orphans.”
And so, 163 years after former slaves founded it, St. Andrews AME carries on, still faithful, still relevant, still alive.