At its annual meeting just past, The General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH) traveled to Historic St. Georges UMC, Philadelphia, PA (see links below). It was a great day at one of the seminal churches in Methodism, the place that greeted Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor---John Wesley's first missionaries from across the pond---and a few years later Francis Asbury, destined to become one of the very first Methodist bishops. History radiates from floor to ceiling and pew to a classic tub pulpit in this oldest Methodist Church building in America.
One of St. George's defining stories is not about its place in Methodist beginnings but how this church almost met its end. In the 1920s a change in neighborhood demographics caused a near-deadly decline in church membership-from a thousand people to fewer than fifty. This state of affairs led The Delaware River Bridge Commission to conclude that St. George's would be uncontested collateral damage when plans for a new bridge linking Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey came off the drawing board. St. George's stood in the path of the bridge and progress demanded demolition.
Here is where one of the great words in history and theology come into play: "BUT." St. George's was marked for demolition BUT a small group of leaders, with the help of Bishop Joseph Nealy, fought a battle in the courts that eventually saved St. George's from the wrecking ball. The settlement moved the path of the bridge 18 feet. Since that time, Historic St. George's, for all its colonial renown, has been known as "the church that moved the bridge." To this day visitors are amazed by the church's extremely close proximity to car and train traffic literally whooshing by.
Ah, what a fascinating story. It charms tourists and intrigues historians. BUT, I am telling you this tale as more than its example of a few of the faithful beating the big, bad system. For church archivists and historians there is a more powerful teachable moment.
St. George's may be the church that moved the bridge---BUT concerning the work of history, the reverse of that phrase is even more on target. The work of history is a bridge that moves the Church. The work of GCAH, annual conference Commissions, conference archives and Historical Societies is a labor of connection traversing Wesleyan- and Methodist-rich legacy, spanning the challenges of this and every time. It is supported by piers and pylons sunk deeply into the core of our "people called Methodist" DNA-crossing rivers or chasms---and finally arriving on the other side where God is forever calling the faithful with all that has been bequeathed to us in tow.
We live in a time when there is more talk of walls than bridges, more fear about being stuck in gridlock rather than seeing a way across or through.
Many people think the work we archivists and historians do is gathering and collecting old stuff and putting it on shelves, more about warm, fuzzy nostalgia than seeding well-grounded new life. Here at GCAH and the work you doing in archives and history wherever you are---WE are bridge builders.
Thank God for the reach of your efforts that may not be fully realized in our life and times.
As we like to say here at the United Methodist Archives, by understanding the past, GCAH helps the Church engage the present and envision the future.
The thing about bridges.....They were built so that crossing-over can happen. So let's never give up. Let's keep on walking and working together