Camden has lost plenty in the last 100 years, but Mount Hope Union A.M.E. Church has found a way to thrive.
For that, let us give thanks and praise to the work, faith, and love of generations of people like Thelma Louise Beverly and Nate Muns; Rita M. Chambers and Michele Wells-Bates; and Clarence O. Phoenix and the Rev. Charles F. Hood.
They and their 100-strong congregation share a fierce devotion to the little granite church at Princess and Kaighns Avenues, where a centennial celebration will include a special service at 11 a.m. Sunday – just in time for the conclusion of Black History Month.
“My mother carried me to the church when I was a baby,” says Beverly, an 86-year-old South Camden resident who speaks with a matriarch’s diction and dignity. She plans to wear one of her signature high-fashion outfits to the service.
“This church gave me everything, as far as guidance and direction and making me a better man,” says Phoenix, 83, a retired Campbell Soup Co. manager who heads the Mount Hope board of trustees.
Wells-Bates, a promotions manager at Exelon Corp. in Philadelphia, says simply, “The church shaped my life.”
All of this and more has gone on under the radar – as does so much of life in a city where crime, politics, and the outrage du jour (no shortage, alas) grab the biggest headlines. Like dozens of other essential and largely unheralded churches, Mount Hope is an ingredient in the glue helping hold Camden together.
“When I first came here five years ago, there were drug dealers across the street,” says Hood, the church’s 22d pastor. “We met with the community, we called the cops, and the drug dealers moved.”
What is now Mount Hope traces its roots to the North Camden of 1910, when former members of a Merchantville congregation began to worship in a home at 1047 Linden St. A new building rose nearby on North 11th Street not long afterward, and the congregation became affiliated with the national Union A.M.E. church, now based in Delaware.
Church members began moving away during the 1960s as blocks of the neighborhood fell to urban “renewal.” In 1973, the congregation moved across town to its current Parkside location after buying what had been Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.
Recently, a certain columnist who has driven past Mount Hope dozens, if not hundreds, of times paid his first visit.
The lovingly maintained sanctuary, built in 1905, is spare yet airy, with walls and ceilings covered in richly patterned pressed tin. The stability, strength and, of course, spirituality of the place are palpable.
Amid the delicate glow from the stained-glass windows on a quiet Saturday afternoon, one can imagine the psalms sung and prayers said. Maybe even answered.
Mount Hope, members say, has enriched not only their lives but the community as well. A monthly food pantry and a weekly youth social are open to the neighborhood. This winter, young church members helped distribute blankets to homeless people downtown.
“It was so cold that night. It was frigid. But it was important for the youth to see that there are people actually living on the street,” says Wells-Bates, a member since her own childhood in Parkside, where she still lives.
Chambers, originally from Camden and now of Philadelphia, is the church’s recording steward – a role her late mother also filled. The service is a way “to give back what this church has given,” she says.
Membership at Mount Hope is as high as it’s ever been, according to the pastor. But more young people are needed to help keep the 100-year-old tradition alive.
If Thelma Louise Beverly (“our grande dame,” says Bates-Wells) is the living history, then Nate Muns may be the future of Mount Hope Union A.M.E.
Like Beverly, he’s been a church member since early childhood. He’s a talented musician who plays piano as well as organ at Mount Hope.
A tad shy (he’s at first reluctant to be photographed), Nate is just 12. But he has a seriousness, and a presence, somehow beyond his years.
“I’m here for life,” he says.