The new pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church hopes to see the power of the church affect positive change in Kalamazoo, particularly among its young people.
And he hopes the energy and youth he brings to his position as senior pastor of one of the oldest churches in Kalamazoo’s African-American community will benefit that cause.
“My role as a young pastor is just to be a voice, an agent of change for the young people in the area,” says the Rev. Millard Southern III, age 39.
That is of particular importance as deadly shootings and violence among young people have spiked higher this year in the black community. And as young people have been a driving force in protests for social change.
The Allen Chapel AME Church building, at 804 W. North St. on Kalamazoo’s North Side, dates back to 1913 and still has its original stained glass windows and pipe organ.
“That’s really what I’ve been seeing in the media -- what I’ve been reading the last couple of weeks in Kalamazoo,” Millard says.
He says he wants to inspire conversations on the relevance of spirituality and the black church in dealing with today’s social problems. And he says, “I want to be a part of a larger movement – of interfaith dialogue and conversation.”
“First and foremost I would love to see the churches come together,” Southern says. “I know I’m A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal). But I think it takes all of us. All of us have to come together. The unity of the churches is very important. I know there are Baptist churches and United Methodist churches, and others. But when you’re dealing with what’s going on in the country, we all have to forget about our religious affiliations and come together.”
The Chicago native was appointed senior pastor of Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in August and has held Sunday services in recent weeks on the lawn outside the 804 W. North St. church in order to greet members of his congregation while allowing for proper social distancing. He is set to lead and build a congregation that was served by an interim pastor, the Rev. Katrinka Johnson, since the November 2019 death of the Rev. Dr. Gloria Jean Clark. She died unexpectedly at age 59.
The name of new senior pastor, the Rev. Millard Southern lll, appears outside Allen Chapel AME Church on Kalamazoo’s North Side.
Allen Chapel presently has a congregation of less than 100, with more older and longtime members than new young members. But Southern says, “Attendance has been increasing each Sunday.”
Southern says he has been trying to attend community events during the past few weeks to meet leaders and individuals who are trying to inspire young people and positive social change.
“All I can see is that the leaders are inspired to help black youth in Kalamazoo,” says Southern of efforts he has seen on Kalamazoo’s North Side. And he says, “From what I’ve gathered, there are a lot of great black civic leaders who are really trying to do good in the community.”
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, he says he knows what it’s like to deal with gangs and drug-dealing. “But I didn’t let that stop me,” he says. He says he is lucky to have had parents who constantly gave him options on things to do and schools that kept him involved with extra-curricular activities. He says he hopes to get involved here with young people and what they’re doing. “I want to hear what they’re talking about, what their struggles are,” he says.
Southern comes to Kalamazoo after serving for three years as senior pastor of Franklin A.M.E. Church in Niles. As he did at his Niles church, he has been commuting to Kalamazoo on weekends from Chicago. But he says he plans to relocate to Kalamazoo in the near future. He is a third-generation minister, the grandson of the late Rev. Millard Southern Sr., and the now-retired Rev. Millard Southern Jr. His father was the former pastor of the Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church in Chicago, and his mother, Cleavella Southern, is a semi-retired educator.
Among other things, Southern says Allen Chapel will be seeking funding and resources to help restore the church building and take care of various maintenance projects. It needs a new roof and funding to refurbish its kitchen and other rooms.
Southern says he also hopes to see Allen Chapel’s building on North Street recognized for its historic significance. He says the church formed in 1855 and the building was erected in 1913. It was expanded in the mid-1960s. He fears the addition may be the reason the structure is not yet on a registry of historic places.
Southern studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and earned his master’s in divinity therein 2010. An avid fan of jazz music and a trumpet player himself, he says he sees jazz musicians’ constant struggle to find balance in their music as a metaphor for the balance people are constantly trying to seek in their lives and in the community. He has written a soon-to-be-published historic review of jazz music.
Southern, who is single and has no children, is the second eldest of five siblings. They include; Millicent, who recently completed her studies at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids; Daniel, a family man who works for Fed/Ex in Chicago; and Milton, who works in operations of Apple Inc. in Cupertino, Calif. A brother just younger than him, Maurice, died in a 2005 automobile accident.
Of Kalamazoo, Southern says, “It has its high and lows, its good and its bad. But it has a lot of potential for civic engagement and cultural understanding. It has a rich history of cultures working together. And it needs more young leaders to step up.”
He says he is talking to leaders, church members, students, and others and “being led by God.”
“I’m talking and just filtering out ideas,” he says. “And my next step is just understanding what are the community needs. What does the community call for? What are the demographics? How is the community set up? What’s the role of my church in the community? I think that’s the next step for me.”