Historic Black Churches in Long Island, New York, Pass the Torch to Millennials

Jackson Memorial AME Zion Church usher Ashley Brown, left, with trustee board member Cherice Vanderhall Wilson and her son Dean, and pastor, the Rev. Malcolm Byrd. Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

For millennial Ashley Brown, returning to the pews at Jackson Memorial AME Zion Church in Hempstead has been less about making joyful noise in the choir than creating change in her community.

“I’m really not a singer, but community service is an integral part of my experience at Jackson Memorial,” Brown, 28, of Hempstead, said on a recent Saturday as she sat in the sanctuary, surrounded by stained glass windows depicting Black History Month heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

As the leading edge of millennials approaches 40, many like Brown are stepping into leadership roles at Long Island’s historic African-American churches, signaling a passing of the torch to the next generation. Choirs are being phased out and energies are being redirected to social activism, said the Rev. Malcolm Byrd, 35, who leads services at Jackson Memorial.

“They [millennials] want to know how your church is helping to make life easier for a single mother or father in Hempstead, for the homeless, and beyond that, issues of economic empowerment,” said Byrd.

Their generational stamp can be seen in community service programs, trustee boards — even the traditional hymnbooks of AME Zion and African Methodist Episcopal churches. Church programs nowadays include a credit union for parishioners.

Millennials currently comprise about 40 percent of Jackson Memorial’s 400-member congregation, whose members live throughout Nassau County and in Suffolk. About half that number fills the pews at Sunday 11 a.m. services led by Byrd.

Brown’s parents were married at Jackson Memorial, she was baptized there as a child and its Sunday sermons taught her about historically black educational institutions such as Howard University in Washington. D.C., where she received a bachelor of arts degree in political science. After serving from 2015 to 2017 in the Peace Corps, teaching English and Black History to children in Kosovo in Eastern Europe, Brown returned to the congregation where she works with younger parishioners and serves as an usher.