A church within walking distance… Payne Memorial AME fosters practical community engagement

Just a few blocks west from Bolton Hill, at 1714 Madison Street, Payne Memorial AME Church stands as an example of the intersection of faith, community service and change under the leadership of Rev. Melech E.M. Thomas. Growing up in the church he now leads, Rev. Thomas’s story is one of personal transformation and a higher calling.

As a teenager he dreamed of becoming a rapper, not unlike many young children growing up in the city. “My first rap was in church,” he said, with no dreams of “Rev-ing”. His father, a minister assigned to Payne Memorial AME when Melech was 13, influenced his spiritual grounding.

Rev. Thomas said his early life was not without its challenges. Struggling with ADHD and anxiety, he faced numerous hurdles as a troubled young man. These experiences, though difficult, shaped his approach to ministry. He openly shares these struggles, fostering an environment where congregants feel comfortable seeking help and acknowledging their challenges.

His dedication to community activism started during his time in Chicago. Approaching 2024, Rev. Thomas is committed to making Payne a leader in Baltimore’s fight against gun violence. He says this goal is beyond ambition; it is a clarion call for action, aligning with his belief in the church’s role in leading meaningful societal change. “The church is in the perfect position to guide these changes,” Thomas said.

His approach to community engagement is practical. Rev. Thomas has fostered initiatives to employ local community members and ensure they receive a livable wage. As he sees it, this effort supports the local economy and strengthens the bond between the church and the community.

A strong advocate for mental health, Rev. Thomas is in the process of creating a mental health ministry at Payne Memorial AME. This initiative aligns with his belief that the church should be a vessel for guiding individuals to the resources they need, be it spiritual, emotional, or practical support. “When people come for the altar call and lay down their burdens, I want to have professionals immediately available,” he said.

Rev. Thomas lives in Bolton Hill. His proximity to the church allows him to be deeply involved in the community, fostering a personal connection with the congregation and the neighborhood.

Payne Memorial AME Church is set to host two holiday events. On Dec. 22, the church will open its doors for a festive holiday party at 6 pm, inviting everyone to join. Additionally, on Dec. 30th, a day-long Kwanzaa event will be held, embracing cultural heritage and community unity.

The AME denomination was founded in 1816, by African American members of five Methodist Episcopal congregations, with the hope of escaping discrimination that was commonplace in churches. Baltimore was at the center of that movement.

Payne Memorial traces its roots to the erection of the first Payne AME church, an 18×25-foot structure erected in 1895 near Jessup by its members and named for Bishop Daniel Payne. The current building in Madison Park reflects continuous expansion and modernization from 1954 forward to 2010.

The AME church has advocated for the civil and human rights of African Americans through social improvement, religious autonomy, and political engagement while always being open to people of all racial backgrounds.

–Lisa Savage