There is a deep-seated faith at work at Rock Temple African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Conyers.
"God has given us his best," said Pastor Alfred Vaughn. "We believe at Rock Temple AME that we give our best. God didn't give to us because He should have. He delighted in giving his best. So we should delight in giving our best."
And giving the community its best has been part of Rock Temple AME's traditions since it was first founded in 1865. This year, the congregation will celebrate the church's 150th anniversary on Aug. 8. In doing so, it celebrates the community it has served during that time.
"Our tradition as an AME church has always been active in human rights, dignity for all humanity," he said. "We believe the spiritual and physical life go together."
Prayers and worship are integral to one's faith journey, Vaughn said, but so, too, is making sure people have food on the table or clothes on their backs.
"Our benevolence fund is the strongest in our church," he said. "We give out baskets, we give out food, we check on the hospitals. We provide hotel rooms for homeless people. We show them where they can find help other than."
The church also offers workshops to help those seeking a job by giving them insight into job interviews.
The men's fellowship, Sons of Allen, mentors young men in the church who do not have a strong masculine role model in their lives. Named for Richard Allen, the founder of the AME, Sons of Allen respond to the challenging realities facing African-American men, which includes adequate health care, economic hardships, additive behaviors, violence and unfairness within the judicial system.
"We have a men's ministry and a women's ministry, to address specific issues about the lives of each gender," Vaughn said. "We're trying to incorporate things that help you understand what it means to be a disciples of Christ."
Making disciples for Christ is part of the mission of the church, Vaughn said. But it's not just about bringing people into the church to increase numbers. "It's trying to enhance people's lives ... actively engaged in everything Christ mandated: self, family, congregation and community."
Rooted in those traditions, the African Methodist Episcopal Church grew out of the Free Africa Society movement that started in Philadelphia in 1787. Methodist preacher Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wanted to create an independent group to meet the needs of African-Americans, who were considered second-class members in the white-dominated Methodist Church.
The Society was formed to provide social and economic guidance, medical care, and to help new citizens build a sense of self-determination. Eventually, the African Methodist Church and the black Episcopal Church grew out of the society.
Rock Temple AME was founded by the Gamble, Levett and Turner families, whose descendents still worship at the church. Originally a brush arbor shelter on Milstead Street, the site was marked by a stone and thus became Rock AME.
Later, a wooden church was built on land donated to the congregation on Bryant Street. Later, in 1937, a pastor changed the name by adding "Temple."
Under the guidance of leaders as Joyce L. Davis, Willie Robert Hamm and W. C. Sadler the congregation raised enough to build a church at its current location in 1964. It was dedicated in 1965.
Vaughn said the like many denominational churches, Rock Temple AME is struggling to make itself relevant to young people, who often view the church as outdated and sanctimonious.
"There's a great need for us not to be high and mighty," Vaughn said. "We must meet people where they are. Not only that, but given them an atmosphere that shows we are not holier-than-thou. We understand what you're going through because we have been those people."
That means, he said, building relationships with people. "We find that it's easier to be ourselves, tell our stories about how Christ has moved us.
"We're pushing people away," he said. "We're trying to stay where we are [inside the church] and bring people to us. We need to go to where they are, so hopefully they will experience and know Jesus Christ."