Michigan's second-oldest AME church celebrates 180th anniversary in Ypsi

After nearly two centuries in existence, Brown Chapel AME is continuing a broad-ranging mission of community service.
Ypsilanti's diverse community of houses of worship includes many establishments that have been around for decades – or, in the case of Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, nearly two centuries. Brown Chapel recently celebrated its 180th birthday, making it the second-oldest active AME church in the state.

Brown Chapel is currently led by a pastoral team, rather than a single pastor – one of the church's many unique qualities. Rev. Donald Phillips, along with his wife Dr. Teleah Phillips, has been leading Brown Chapel since August of 2020, following Rev. Jerry Hatter, who led the congregation from 1991 to 2020. Rev. Phillips, who previously served at AME churches in Albion, Mich., and Atlanta, Ga., says his and his wife’s appointment as Brown Chapel’s pastoral team was "somewhat historic."

"It’s not common to assign a team of pastors at an AME church," says Phillips. "We’re the second clergy couple assigned in Michigan in the AME church’s history."

That history, Phillips explains, is a lengthy one. The AME church is America's oldest denomination organized by Black people. 
Reverends Teleah and Donald Phillips at Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti.
"When I mention the AME church, we are talking about a connectional church," explains Phillips. "That’s different from Baptist churches, which are oftentimes independent. All AME churches are in connection with each other, making Brown Chapel a part of a greater collective."

Although the AME church was initially established in order to combat prejudice and racism in secular communities at a time when Black people were unable to worship in the same establishments as white enslavers, it's open to worshipers of all races. Phillips explains that one of the fastest-growing AME churches right now is actually located in India, likely due to the church’s overarching anti-racist structure and messages. 

"We have pastors who are Caucasian, Latino, and other backgrounds," Phillips says. "We are unashamedly Black and Christian, but not to the degradation of anyone else."

Phillips also has been working to increase Brown Chapel’s accessibility, primarily through social media. Every service is available to attend either in person or virtually through a YouTube livestream, and previous services are available to watch anytime on Brown Chapel’s YouTube channel.
Sunday service at Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti.
Brown Chapel is connected to a wide network of other AME churches, but also is strongly connected to Ypsilanti’s community through a variety of events and services. The most notable of these is the annual Brotherhood Banquet, a large event open to the greater Ypsi community in order to spread the church’s message and encourage unity regardless of faith or race. 

Brown Chapel held its 70th Brotherhood Banquet in April of this year, with the theme "Moving Together from Injustice to Justice." The event featured Kyra Harris Bolden, Michigan’s first Black female Supreme Court Justice, as a keynote speaker.

The church's other programs include a weekly food distribution on Fridays in collaboration with Food Gatherers, where guests may receive groceries and hot meals when needed. Brown Chapel also has a youth literacy program, offering a small free library to local youth and teens.

Longtime church member and Ypsilanti resident Sandy Kamuyu says that after attending different churches throughout Michigan, and even outside of the country in Kenya, Brown Chapel has always felt like home.
Sunday service at Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti.
"I’ve been attending Brown Chapel for over 50 years. I started attending when I was 12 years old," Kamuyu says. "It was a good, warm, welcoming place, so I stayed."

Throughout her time at Brown Chapel, Kamuyu has performed many roles in addition to attending services. She's served as an usher, a Sunday school teacher, and director of the church’s Young People’s Division, which works to get youth and teenagers involved in Brown Chapel. She says the connections between the church and the community are very unique to Brown Chapel.

"Some of our founding members were from Ypsilanti, and built the church with their own hands," Kamuyu says. "Prominent families from Ypsi’s history, people rooted right here in Ypsi, their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, have grown up in Brown Chapel. They may not always stay but they always come back to visit."

Because of the connection between AME churches, Kamuyu says Brown Chapel continuously reaches out to those who have left Ypsilanti. She highlights Phillips' strong efforts to reach out to and spotlight the successes of young people in the church.
Reverends Donald and Teleah Phillips at Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti.
"It’s a deliberate reaching out to those who are not actually present in the physical church in Ypsilanti, but are still connected," Kamuyu says. "This is your family, your community, and your support."

With a Sunday service averaging around 70 participants each week, Phillips says he has seen considerable growth in the church over the past year. He attributes some of that growth to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, with folks looking to be present in the community once more. 

"The future looks bright. Every Sunday we’re seeing new faces coming in to worship with us, and people are excited about getting involved," Phillips says. "My wife, family, and I are excited about being with the Brown Chapel family, but also being in the Ypsilanti community. We want to be a part of the flourishing and reimagining of what Ypsi is and can be."

For more information on Brown Chapel AME, service times, and upcoming events, visit the church's website.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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