From A Spectrum of Faith, our student-written, photo-narrative about religion in Des Moines
Written by Kayla Schween
Photo by Bob Blanchard (http://www.bobblanchardphotography.com)
Historically a predominantly African-American congregation, Burns United Methodist is a faith community where all are welcome and love and hugs abound. Many members have been attending Burns since their childhood, as several generations did before them.
Since the church’s founding in 1866, African-Americans in Des Moines have had a place to worship freely within a tight-knit community of support. This tradition has continued to the present. Betty Jackson, who relocated to Des Moines from North Carolina, remembers how the older folks of the congregation welcomed her, helping her find her church home. For Joyce Wilks, Burns has been a “loving family” ever since the warm welcome she received in the late 1980s.
As part of the third largest Christian denomination in the United States, Methodists believe God is one Being, revealed in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God came to the world through His son Jesus Christ, both true God and true man. To reconcile humankind to God, Jesus was crucified, but He will return one day to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.
Methodism was founded in 18th century England by John Wesley, who sought reform in the Church of England. “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” is a famous Wesleyan aphorism.
Methodists are brothers and sisters in Christ and children of God who are made in His image. They regard their church as the body of Christ and each member as part of that body. The Bible, their sacred text, is believed to be God’s Word and is used as a guidebook for life. Their mission is to make Disciples of Christ, transforming the world and supporting believers along their journey of faith.
“I practice Christianity through those I come across and my family,” says member Harvey Andrews, who was raised within the Methodist church. For Mr. Andrews, becoming a member at Burns meant familiarity through ritual. “Burns is like the church I went to as a teenager,” he says. Tradition and consistent values endure among all Methodist churches. Members experience God’s grace through love and faith in action, an experience vital to Methodism and to Christianity. Through the practices of ministry and service, members dedicate their lives to God.
Christianity is a religion of fellowship, and Burns United Methodist Church is a strong community of believers who have created a family in Christ committed to service, worship, and the glory of God. However, according to Joyce Wilks, “When you have family, you have disagreements.”
Families aren’t perfect, and members are not expected to be perfect, either. “Churches are diverse, and people are always going to be people,” said Mr. Andrews. The congregants are true to themselves and honest about their lives, creating a safe community where people can be vulnerable and accepted. Congregants do not shy away from their opinions; they strive to create an atmosphere of open dialogue among members.
Members proudly identify as the oldest African-American congregation in Des Moines, one that is continuously transforming and yet always true to its foundation of family and community. The church provides a community of support through trying times and personal strife, delivering spiritual guidance for followers of Christ. “Burns being a smaller church makes it like a family,” shares Steve Kitchen, a third generation member who has attended the church for almost 60 years. “Two church members actually got me a job pretty early on,” he adds.
Burns is rooted in its people, and the people are rooted in Burns.
Azure light from stained glass windows bathes the sanctuary, illuminating walls lined with tapestries befitting the themes of the season. At once large and awe-inspiring, yet warm and personal, the interior, composed of warm woods and homey brick, encourages quiet reflection. Rows of straight-backed wooden pews facing the sanctuary keep church-goers comfortably seated while maintaining an atmosphere of solemnity. Up front, the pulpit leaves space for a choir and band complete with a set of drums occasionally played by Angela D. Lewis, Pastor at Burns and, as it happens, a talented jazz drummer. In addition to Sunday morning worship and prayer meetings, the spacious church has plenty of room for community meetings and Sunday school classes.
During Easter and Pentecost, cream-colored tapestries depict the holy cross in one panel and Jesus Christ, with wounds and a crown of thorns, in another. “Christ is Risen” and “Alleluia” adorn the tapestries in celebration of the Resurrection. Below the few steps leading to the pulpit, a wooden altar area composed of wooden rails leaves space for congregants to come forward, kneel, and bring their petitions to God. This is sacred space.
The space that Burns calls sacred, however, has changed throughout its long history. At times, even tents and old factory buildings sufficed as their place of worship. However temporary or unconventional their place of worship has been throughout the decades, this body of believers has persevered.
Burns’ prior location was a small building on Crocker Street, home to a Methodist Episcopal church until 1928, when Burns moved in. Burns flourished here, according to Mr. Kitchen, even though upkeep on the building had become more difficult. They later sold the Crocker Street property in order to raise money for outreach and charity efforts. In early 2011, Gatchel United Methodist Church gifted Burns with its current location on Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. With the help of Reverend Henry Bevel, and after much discussion and debate, the Burns congregation voted to accept the gift and moved to the space they now call home. As Mr. Kitchen puts it, “Gatchel was a blessing.”
A former member of the Gatchel congregation, Gladys Alvarez, described the emotional ceremony during which her church’s cross was handed to Burns. It felt like a funeral to her. But, while the ceremony marked an end for Gatchel, it was a new beginning for Burns and a new space to call home. Churchless for a few months after the congregation dissolved, Ms. Alvarez eventually gravitated back to the location that now houses Burns United Methodist. “My daughter thinks the physical space brought me back. You know, that’s ‘my church,’” she smiles. “Burns came to me.”
Joyce Wilks started compiling a history of Burns when the congregation began the process of selling the “old church” on Crocker Street. “The words ‘In God We Trust’ were true in the hearts of a small black congregation searching for a place to call home,” she said.
Burns was an active, established congregation in a time before African-Americans could even own land in Iowa. Named after the first Black Bishop of Episcopal Methodism, Francis Burns, the so-named church became an official body in May of 1866. They began small and, over the decades, have persevered through location changes, fire damage, economic hardship, and rebuilding. The words of Ms. Wilks ring true and pay homage to those who have come before them: “Burns can never forget the struggles of those who have been a witness, those who have labored in the vineyard for our namesake. God has truly blessed Burns and we will continue to give to God all the praise and glory.“
The 1960s brought the Civil Rights Movement and integration, an era when the South Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church recognized Burns as a member of the previously exclusively white Methodist Conference. On June 15, 1977, Burns United Methodist was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the past five years, the demographics at Burns have changed. Recent refugees or immigrants, many from the Congo region, have brought youthfulness to the congregation and a distinct African flair to worship. Even though some don’t yet speak English, the families attend services each week. The children participate in Sunday school and help light the candles during the service. This new generation has revitalized an aging congregation and will help to continue the traditions of Burns’ ancestors.
One Sunday, Abia and one of her family members treat the congregation to a worship song. Originally from the Congo, Abia and her children have become part of the Burns family and appreciate the welcome of the community as they adjust to American life. Wearing the traditional clothing of her homeland, Abia stands in her bright green intricately designed dress and head covering. She and a family member slowly approach the front of the sanctuary, pulling out a bongo drum and drumstick. A younger member of their troupe translates for them, explaining that their song celebrates the power and glory of God. The syncopated beat of the drum, combined with the two women’s powerful vocals, transports listeners through exuberant movement, rhythm, and song to Abia’s homeland.
“There is nothing so big that God can’t handle it,” says Pastor Lewis, describing the work of prayer. A powerful tool for members of Burns, prayer is not always a private or quiet time. In fact, it is often quite vocal. “Yes, Jesus,” “Amen,” and “Hallelujah,” charge the atmosphere with supplication and belief. The bulletin lists the names of individuals and families requesting support and prayer, but during prayer service, as well, members offer spontaneous shout-outs for additional loved ones.
The faithful at Burns value receptiveness to God’s word and His interactions with them through prayer. This direct communication with God is a way to not just make requests but also to encounter His glory. Small groups gather, discussing the needs of those around them, their heads bent over prayers shared aloud. With prayer as the unifying force, warmth and love flow between all members of the congregation. Their lives, vulnerable once out in the open, become strong when intertwined with the stories and experiences of other followers of Christ.
Congregants will tell you that God has blessed Burns with a stream of dynamic leaders, each of whom brings his or her own flair to the congregation. Today, Pastor Lewis presides with passionate energy over services and in ministering to her congregation.
Service begins with a time of “bragging on God” called testimony, where sorrow and celebration occur together. From announcements of graduations to stories of joy and healing, congregants share how God moves within their lives. Mothers have recovered from hospital visits, brothers have found Christ in prison, and God’s grace and goodness remain certain even through times of pain and difficulty. When Sunday school teacher Joyce Wilkes recently announced her retirement, cheers and frenzied clapping filled the air as the congregation showed their appreciation for her years of hard work. After testimony, congregants chat, inquiring about each other’s lives with genuine interest.
Music is another vital form of praise and worship. Even without a musician or large choir to lead them, the congregation at Burns becomes one voice, praising and worshipping their Creator. As Harvey Andrews puts it, “A song can take you there and bring you back.” They sing traditional hymns, from the ever-popular “Blessed Assurance” to the more intimate “I Need Thee Every Hour.”
Mr. Andrews brings his gift for song to the congregation, selecting and then leading the hymns many Sundays. “There is always a song in my head. You know, God speaks to me through music.” Congregants old and young begin singing before they have even opened the hymnals, proof of the powerful combination of music and praise. The young, spirited soundman, Jerome, plays modern Gospel hits prior to and following the service, a reminder that contemporary music has a place, even in a historic congregation.
Scriptural readings during services often come from the Psalms of the Bible—essentially songs of praise to God. The Psalms are reminders of God’s steadfast love and the blessings He bestows upon those who follow Him. Many begin with tales of sorrow and hardship but end with God’s glory and His promise to watch over His children. These eloquent verses lend support to the members of Burns whenever they need it. From the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels to the praise of the Psalms, the Bible gives congregants examples of ways to live life as a follower of Christ. Dr. Dennis Zachary shared a verse he uses as a guide: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and all of your mind and all of your strength.”
Despite the living faith of congregants and the addition of recent immigrants and refugees, Burns still struggles to attract new members. As Ms. Jackson put it, “It’s hard to get people to come. Young people just don’t believe anymore.” In hopes of attracting younger members, folks at Burns have taken steps to increase community mission work, offering neighbors a meal and, if needed, a change of clothes. Giving back is important to the culture of this congregation, namely by way of tithes–when one donates 10% of one’s income to the church. These monetary gifts go to support the range of ministries the United Methodist Church is involved in, from Native ministries to international trips. Even for those who cannot give financially or visit the elderly or ill, members of the congregation know a simple conversation and the act of reaching out can improve lives and situations.
Burns United Methodist Church is a strong faith community held together by love and adoration of God for 150 years. Now, adapting to the times, the church is entering a stage of revitalization where “every Sunday speaks to somebody.” God is speaking to His people, and at Burns their hearts are open.