The African Orthodox Church (AOC), a religious movement born in response to racism in the tradition of the Catholic faith, is still fulfilling its purpose a century after its founding.
Although AOC membership has declined significantly since its early years, members of the church’s national and local branches came together over the weekend to honor the legacy of founder George Alexander McGuire at a a two-day centenary celebration.
The in-person festivities were postponed until February after COVID-19 delayed the anniversary gathering from September last year. A luncheon was held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel inside the Miami Merchandise Mall on Saturday, February 19, followed by a celebratory mass the following day with guest speakers, special performances, and overseas visitors.
Proclamations from the offices of District 24 Deputy Frederica S. Wilson, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, and District 102 Representative Felicia Robinson were presented to the Church recognizing its historical significance.
Beginning in New York in 1921, the AOC spread to Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Florida, Cuba, South Africa, Venezuela, Canada, and the Bahamas, creating regional jurisdictions.
He has seen generations of black bishops, priests and deacons take up and pass on the mantle, each hoping to leave the world a better place for their faithful.
“I was raised as a child in this church and came here into the arms of my mother,” said Corpus Christi AOC leader and former Philadelphia Police Department chaplain Sylvester Young.
The 85-year-old Bishop says the AOC had a huge impact on his life, shaping many important lessons and experiences for him, including boosting his pride as a black Catholic.
“I enjoy my work as a church leader,” he said, reminiscing about evangelistic opportunities, his ordination as a priest in 1972, visiting outreach efforts for the sick and people elderly.
In contrast, the priesthood in McGuire’s time was very different, as black religious leaders were not allowed to fully assume their roles. His personal experiences led to the birth of AOC.
“[McGuire] always sought to have a church with two things,” said George Walter Sands, Archbishop of the Church’s Southern Jurisdiction and Head of St. Peter’s African Orthodox Cathedral in Little Haiti. “One was what we call apostolic succession and the second was ecclesiastical freedom, which is independence from black churches so that we don’t necessarily have to be under the authority of a white body. We don’t We are not under the auspices of the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church, but we are Catholic in theology.
Born in Antigua, McGuire was ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church at the age of 31, serving in black Episcopal churches in Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. He then began working as an archdeacon for Colored Work in Arkansas for four years, before resigning due to segregation supported by the local bishop.
McGuire traveled in the United States for some time and was discouraged that black people were still segregated in Episcopal churches.
After caring for his ailing mother in Antigua, he returned to the United States and became chaplain general of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization supporting the formation of an independent black nation in Africa. Before long, McGuire partnered with Garvey to launch the AOC, a denomination made up of traditional Catholic teachings with black leadership and control.
“There were certain things as a black priest that he was not allowed to do in the Episcopal Church, such as white service [congregants seeking Holy Communion] for example,” Sands said, explaining the segregation McGuire suffered. “If I’m a priest, I should be able to serve anyone – black, white or any child of God. It shouldn’t matter.
“These were people who were tired of being bullied by a society that viewed black people as inferior, submissive and ultimately useless,” said guest speaker Terrence Taylor, rector of the Church of the Transfiguration, during Saturday lunch. “And the only place they should have found acceptance and equality was in the house of God, the church. But sometimes the church is no better than the people who walk into its doors.
Alluding to the biblical story of Joseph’s betrayal, Taylor said people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds are often set against each other by a system that thrives on oppression.
“What [young] Black people speak today – civic engagement, dismantling racism, economic empowerment, how the Church is complicit in helping black struggles – George Alexander McGuire and Marcus Garvey were talking about these things 100 years ago,” did he declare.
“If we look back in our history, we know that the Church has always been at the center of everything,” said Ernestine Mike-Petit, applauding churches from African Orthodox and Baptist denominations for promoting equality and referring the role of black religious leaders in the civil rights movement.
“We are trying to get back to a place where the Church is the main center of everything that happens in the world,” she continued. “Our churches have always been the place where we have a voice, can solve problems and express what we believe in without fear of repercussions.”
Creating this safe space for black people was McGuire’s priority.
Just three years into his UNIA chaplaincy, he left the organization to focus on expanding AOC. At the time of his death in 1934, the church had been in existence for only 13 years, with 30 parishes, 50 clergy, and 30,000 congregants who were primarily Caribbean through Bahamian, West Indian, Bajan, Jamaican, or Haitian ancestry.
Today there are about 15 parishes left, with 5,000 members worldwide. Only three parishes are active in the southern jurisdiction: St. Peter’s, Christ the King AOC in Miami Gardens, and St. Anne’s AOC in Liberty City.
“A lot of what we do is try to reach out to the community and spread our faith through it,” said Sands, whose father, uncle and two aunts were among the earliest members of St.Peter. “As different needs arise in the community, we try to make ourselves available to meet them.”
Sands says efforts like feeding the homeless, food and clothing drives, an ecumenical community group and a self-discipline karate class for young people are examples.
“[AOC] has become a place of information, rest, consolidation and consolation for many in this community,” said Fred Mims, whose late uncle James Benjamin Flowers served as archbishop for two decades. “This church has always been a focal point in the community, as well as in Miami Gardens.”
“It’s a story we can never forget,” said Vera Lee, a member of the Church for decades. “As a child growing up there, I had wonderful and inspiring memories. There were always people who cared about you and leaders who guided you in a spiritual and uplifting way.
Without the AOC, Lee says, black people might not have had the opportunity to operate freely in leadership positions and learn the words of God without discrimination. According to her, the community impact of the AOC is linked to its history.
The goal of many members now is to pass this religious tradition on to the younger generation, hoping to keep it alive for another 100 years.
“All I know in terms of practice and religion is African Orthodoxy,” Sands said. “For some of us who were born and raised in the Church, we like to say that we are African Orthodox from the cradle to the grave.”