‘Barrier Breakers: The Pilgrimage’ spotlights historic Black churches

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Archdeacon Brenda Gilbert, center, stands with Bernadette Moore, left, and Jeanne Fleming, members of St. Mary's St. Stephen's in Morganton. Photo by Virginia Taylor

In January 2020, in preparation for Black History Month, Archdeacon Brenda Gilbert raised a question.

“We were having a conversation about pilgrimages — they always come up,” Gilbert says. “Everybody was trying to maybe get money together to go to Selma [Ala.]. And I said, ‘What about here? Has [a pilgrimage] ever been done here?’”

At the time, Gilbert — whose position involves serving as the liaison between the bishop and the deacons in the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina — had no way of knowing her inquiry would morph into the multiyear, multimedia undertaking “Barrier Breakers: The Pilgrimage.”

The project began with a video series and officially debuted in its multifaceted form in October. At its core, “Barrier Breakers: The Pilgrimage” invites people to learn about the area’s historically Black episcopal churches — virtually or in person — through audio recordings, archival photographs and text, thereby preserving a past full of remarkable hardships and triumphs.

A promising start

When Bishop José McLoughlin of the Episcopal Diocese of WNC appointed Gilbert to spearhead the project, she figured it would be a one-year undertaking. She and Virginia Taylor, then the communications director for the diocese, did what they could to research current and former Black congregations. The pair also drove to churches to interview congregants.

“It was layer upon layer,” Gilbert recalls.

A former military brat, Gilbert put to use her childhood talent for making friends fast. “I suggested that we not just do these interviews for different parishioners from Black parishes, but that we get to know them,” she explains. “How can we come to the table and not know who we’re sharing it with?”

The initial result was “Barrier Breakers,” a collection of short video interviews with five people of color in the diocese. Launched in February 2021, the project was well received within and outside the church for its amplification of marginalized voices, as well as its role of filling gaps in the diocese’s overall history.

In turn, “Barrier Breakers” also fit with McLoughlin’s ongoing mission to build Beloved Community. The concept stems from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who described it as “a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness, a goal that can be accomplished through courage and determination, and through education and training, if enough people are willing to make the necessary commitment.”

On the trail of history

In August 2021, “Barrier Breakers” resumed as a monthly series, spotlighting the story of a different person of color in the diocese with each installment. But throughout the video project, Gilbert and Taylor were working on turning the interviews into something even more ambitious. 

Building on the stories shared in the videos, the duo sought to present fuller chronicles of historically Black churches in Asheville (St. Matthias), Morganton (St. Stephen’s), Lincolnton (St. Cyprian’s), Rutherfordton (St. Gabriel’s), Tyron (Good Shepherd), Murphy (St. Barnabas) and Franklin (St. Cyprian’s). Selecting the congregations to spotlight was a simple yet painful process, notes Gilbert, in that it was initially limited to the handful of structures still standing. It then evolved to include churches that have been demolished but maintain connections to newer parishes.

“We learned there were two St. Cyprian’s, and [the one in Lincolnton] is gone,” Gilbert explains. “We had the hardest time even finding where it used to be. It was so sad.”  

She and Taylor had a similar difficulty pinpointing the former site of St. Barnabas. Gilbert says no historical marker or signifier of any kind sits on the spot — just “standing water from where they bulldozed it for a highway.”

These church closures, continues Gilbert, were not solely impacted by urban renewal. “It was difficult to keep young people enthusiastic about going to an Episcopal church with mostly adults when their friends from school were going to Baptist or AME churches that had many more young people in attendance with thriving youth programs,” she explains.

Together, Gilbert and Taylor pored through numerous church documents, down to notes from vestry meetings — whose squint-worthy text eventually forced Gilbert to get a stronger prescription for her glasses. They also had help from Gordon Hamilton, whose genealogical research uncovered a wealth of history about Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Tryon, as well as Jim Abbott, former rector of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Asheville and the author of the 2011 book Unfinished Journey: A Brief Racial History of the Diocese of Western North Carolina.

But further involvement from the church members remained paramount. The team invited each parish to come up with its own prayer and sought to meet with church elders and record their stories. Though many shared an initial reticence to publicly share their experiences, their concerns lessened once the congregants sat down to speak with Gilbert and Taylor.

“They were so happy to be able to tell their stories,” Gilbert says. “It made me sad how grateful they were that people wanted to spotlight and highlight their parishes. They’re used to kind of being in survival mode, and they’re worth so much more than that.”

Nevertheless, many of the stories are painful ones. Gilbert reveals that multiple interviewees cried while recounting their churches’ pasts and asked that certain anecdotes be stricken from the record. She adds that many still live in the same neighborhoods where racism was prevalent and noted that they were concerned that their stories could have consequences today.

Pilgrims: unite

With the audio and research acquired, Taylor wrote the majority of the seven scripts, and Gilbert narrated each episode. Taylor also folded in choral music and a range of sound effects.

“She did it all, and she learned as she went along with a lot of it,” Gilbert says. “She was staying up late at night trying to figure it out, and she did an excellent job.”

Taylor’s work was so effective that when she sent Gilbert a rough cut of the first completed chapter, which focuses on St. Stephen’s in Morganton, Gilbert was brought to tears. She compares the experience to carrying a child for nine months and then finally getting to see the baby.

The two set — and met — a deadline of July 1, 2022, to have “The Pilgrimage” ready for the diocese’s 100th anniversary, the official celebration for which took place in November at its annual convention at Asheville’s Trinity Episcopal Church.

The completed website, which Taylor also built, provides guidance on how to begin the pilgrimage. Though Gilbert recommends going to the churches in person and listening to the corresponding chapter on headphones to maximize the experience, she notes that the breadth of the diocese and the distance between the featured locations will likely result in a healthy number of virtual pilgrims. Also, considering the wealth of photos, informative captions and additional resources to continue the journey, the “Barrier Breakers” project is far from over.

“‘The Pilgrimage,’ we try to emphasize, is just the beginning. We put in resources for people to carry on for themselves because [the initial set of church histories] had to come to an end sometime,” Gilbert says. “We could have kept on going. As we kept digging, we found out about more mission churches that never made it into a parish. It’s just a lot, and knowing the clock was ticking, we had to stop somewhere, but there was so much more.”

Chapel on the hill

The next planned chapter for “Barrier Breakers: The Pilgrimage” is set for Saturday, Feb. 25, with an in-person pilgrimage event at each featured church. Participants from the series and other knowledgeable parishioners will be present to share stories and answer questions.

COMMUNITY CORNERSTONES: Diane, right, and Bill Mance stand in the sanctuary of St. Matthias Episcopal Church, where they’ve been active members since 2001. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

At St. Matthias, Diane and Bill Mance plan to attend. Active members of the church since they moved to Asheville from McDowell County in 2001, the Mances were original members of the diocesan Commission to Dismantle Racism and were interviewed in the “Barrier Breakers” video series. In conjunction with “The Pilgrimage” component, they see the spotlight on the church as a matter of great importance.

“I think it certainly was appropriate and probably a long time coming,” Bill says. “There are people in Asheville who don’t know that the church exists — [including] Episcopalians in Asheville who couldn’t tell you where the church is. And around the diocese, the same is very true. And so, this is helping people know where St. Matthias is and get to see a little bit about it.”

St. Matthias began after emancipation as Freedman’s Church, a Black congregation within downtown’s Trinity Church that worshipped at a separate time from the all-white congregation. In the early 1870s, the rapidly growing Black congregation moved to the newly built, two-story Trinity Chapel on the hillside next to the future St. Matthias — on the slope that currently overlooks White Labs Brewing Co. The framed building also housed a day school on the first floor, the first in Asheville to provide formal education lessons to Black children and adults.

In 1894, the congregation had outgrown the hillside space, prompting the construction of the current St. Matthias church by former slave James Vester Miller. The brick artisan and contractor was also responsible for numerous structures around Asheville that still stand today.

“Everybody talks about the acoustics,” Diane says. “For a man who was born at the time that he was born and was able to build something like this, that says a lot about the craftsmanship. And a lot of whites didn’t even know how to do it.”

For decades, St. Matthias’ parishioners included prominent Black professionals, such as education advocate Isaac Dickson. But as church attendance across denominations dwindled in the 1990s and St. Matthias nearly closed due to poor finances, church leaders decided to integrate the congregation, and organist Ron Lamb became its first white member. The shift saved St. Matthias, and it continues to attract a robust group of Black and white attendees each Sunday.

All of the above and more details are chronicled in “The Pilgrimage” chapter on St. Matthias, and though the Mances have yet to see an uptick in visitors directly related to the “Barrier Breakers” project, they’re thankful for local activist DeWayne Barton including St. Matthias on his Hood Huggers tours. These combined efforts bode well for the future as they teach today’s Western North Carolinians about the historical site’s past.

“This [church] has been going strong all this time,” Bill says. “You see the ‘150 Years’ banner there? It’s not planning on fading away any time soon.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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