New Orleans – Historic Wesley United Methodist Church, the second oldest African American church in New Orleans, the eighth oldest in the United States and a symbol of the struggle for emancipation and human rights in the state of Louisiana, is in jeopardy. Unless those who are trying to save it acquire financial support soon, the church may be torn down due to hurricane damage and replaced with a parking lot.
During the 1830s, enslaved Africans built Wesley United brick by brick. “The church was built voluntarily by our people while they were in slavery,” said Sakura Kone, who is leading the movement to save the church. Not only did they work on the church every evening after working tirelessly in the fields, but they also worked all day on Sundays, their only “day off.” They used the bottom level of the church for entertainment, gatherings and other meetings, while on the second floor is the sanctuary filled with hand crafted pews.
During the abolitionist movement to end slavery, Wesley United was a stopping point and hiding place for people fleeing to freedom. Walking through the church gives a sense of communion with the builders who worked so hard for something they could call their own. The founders would be heartbroken if they could see the current state of the church.
When volunteers led by Sakura Kone, well known for his work with Common Ground Relief since Katrina, offered to lead restoration efforts, church members and neighbors rejoiced. However, the church’s 400 members were devastated recently when they heard the news that their church could be demolished if not upgraded.
Wesley United is the only place where many members found a sense of peace and happiness after losing everything they had in post-Katrina flooding. They can’t bear to lose their church as well.
George Francis, a lifelong member of Wesley, is deeply saddened by this situation. “My mother and father grew up in this church and were married here. I have been a member since I was a baby. My heart is here, at Wesley Church,” he said. Ashley Gibson has been a member of Wesley for the past nine years. “I lost so much during the storm and the only thing that kept me going was my faith in God and my church family. Finding out that our church may not be coming back has only reopened the wounds that we’ve been trying to heal since Katrina,” said Gibson. Another church member said, “My family and I have been attending Wesley since I was a little girl. It would absolutely kill me to see all that history torn down.”
Sakura Kone, who grew up in north Louisiana, spent much of his adult life in California, then moved to New Orleans to volunteer after Katrina, is traveling around the country raising funds and speaking eloquently of Wesley United’s history and future. Meanwhile, conscious of the threat of imminent demolition, he and a coalition of groups including Rebuild Green and United Saints are making progress transforming the church into a community center.
“As a way to get these young people’s feet in the door, we want to offer training in the disciplines of music, theater, dance, martial arts,” said Kone. He has also included the community in the rebuilding, using the opportunity to train young people in the building trades. Skilled craftsmen are needed to pass their skills along to the next generation.
The cost of repairs, renovation and restoration is estimated at well over $1.5 million due to structural issues. The good news is that the church has already been gutted out and the pews have been taken apart and sanded down. However, that’s only the beginning of what needs to be done and the movement to save Wesley United needs your help.
A major part of Black and U.S. history will be lost if the church is unable to acquire adequate resources before the wrecking crews move in to demolish it and put a parking lot in its place. Future generations need to witness and experience this important part of history. The people of New Orleans need this structure as a reminder that after the storm, they can still hold on to their heritage, their legacy and their faith.
Call Save Wesley United’s Sakura Kone’ at (504) 906-0644 or (504) 861-5017 for more information about how you can help. To make a financial contribution online, visit www.savewesleyunited.org.