There’s a special spirit that comes over visitors to an historic island church like Galveston’s Wesley Tabernacle United Methodist, which turns 150 years old this Sunday.
Their 1924 sanctuary, which draws cruise ship tourists to visit, has endured throughout more trials than there is space here to recount.
The place retains the aura of tradition based on its architecture, but it has also seen progressive changes: It was the home of the first female African-American Methodist minister, the Rev. Perrie Joy Jackson.
Raised in the pews here, she later returned to pastor Wesley.
The Texas Annual Conference of the denomination had this to say at Jackson’s death in 2012.
“It is likely that thousands of people of all ages praise God for having allowed them to know her. Although her earthly life has ended, her legacy of leadership—in ministry to children and adults—spanned many decades as a godly example of courage and selfless dedication. With an impressive list of ‘firsts,’ Jackson was a true trailblazing pioneer in life and in the faith. Jackson was the first African-American ordained in the Texas Conference as a deacon in 1962 and an elder in 1967. In addition, she served as the founding pastor at First UMC Prairie View and in Galveston County as a pastor in Hitchcock, Texas City and Galveston.”
Jackson’s legacy here has been carried on by other pioneering women and men, including the late Della Pearl Murphy who was the creator of the many, colorful banners used to mark the church year.
“We are a family church,” said Idella Duncan, who has been a member since 1978. “It is a very friendly church and we do a lot of cooking—and eating. We serve 130 breakfasts to the homeless on Saturday mornings.”
Duncan is known for her baked chicken which may be available at the dinner which will follow services this Sunday (see box).
A long history implies the ability to adapt to changes. Galveston isn’t the same island twice.
In addition to raising the first woman preacher, Wesley now has a new leader, the Rev. William Sowell, who has shown distinctly Baptist tendencies in his preaching to good effect.
“Pastor Sowell is really great,” Duncan said. “I think he will help our church. Methodists tend to be kind of quiet, but Pastor brings his sermons out loud and clear, you can’t sit down on him. He’s a bit Baptist and he makes us all say, ‘Amen.’”
Like Avenue L Baptist, the church has also become a stop for cruise ship passengers who seem to treasure the experience of a new culture and architectural mix.
“We had ten white people come to visit before they took a cruise,” Duncan said. “They were from Canada. We’re also a fine place for weddings.”
Fellow congregant Arthur Richmond noted that the new tourists have been appreciative. He’s been active at Wesley for 65 years and counting.
“We have had a racial and nationality mix of cruise ship visitors,” he said. “They have been warmly welcomed and they were amazed at the design of the church. It’s amazing architecture for a place that has been a staple in the community for service and for being open.”
The congregation is tending older these days, Richmond noted.
“Our oldest member is 96,” he said. “We have over 25 who are 80 and above. I grew up there as did all my siblings and my children were baptized there.”
Lucille Armstead, another pillar of this flock, emphasized the practical service the church offers.
“Every Wednesday we have a food pantry and clothes bank,” she said. “We open up to the community and give out to meet needs. We also have a program called the Society of St. Stevens which offers one-time help with things like rent payments or gas. We cater to everyone in the community, the island, the county.”
Rev. Sowell has a special prayer for Wesley’s next 150 years.
“The vision for the coming years is to reiterate the importance of a faith foundation in our daily life journey,” he said. “We plan to also make clear the relevance of having a strong connection to God during difficult and controversial times. We are looking forward to being an instrument of support for our schools, charitable organizations and other church or religious organizations that we can partner with. We are excited and motivated to help this community know that the church does fit in today’s structure and that God is still the answer.”
Next week in Our Faith: A preview of special Christmas sermons.