Bed-Stuy’s Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest African-American congregation in Brooklyn, but it is rooted in the modern era and battling modern problems. In 1818 the church became a part of the AMEC. Bridge Street has historic connections to social justice movements and activism, and since 1997, under the pastoral leadership of the Rev. David Cousin, the senior pastor, and his wife, the Rev. Valerie Cousin, the executive minister, the tradition continues.
The motto of the church is “The Church in the Heart of the Community with the Community at Heart.” To Valerie Cousin the motto illustrates Bridge Street’s passion for aiding the neighborhood through its various workshops, programs, and events.
Bridge Street runs several events throughout the year, including an annual Family and Friends Day street festival. Locals are invited for free food and games. Another event, the Block & Resident Associations, holds community meetings, at which local residents discuss pressing issues.
Bridge Street church moved to 277 Stuyvesant Avenue in 1938. It is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC), which has has a long history among African-Americans. According to the church’s website, the AMEC “grew out of the Free African Society… established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks off their knees while praying.” The traditional Protestant Episcopal Church proved to be unwelcoming and violently discriminatory, leading to the creation of the first AMEC, according Dennis Dickerson, retired general officer to the AMEC. “The most significant era of denominational development occurred during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oftentimes, with the permission of Union army officials AME clergy moved into the states of the collapsing Confederacy to pull newly freed slaves into their denomination,” Dickerson said. A devotion to the Black community remains strong at Bridge Street.
The Sunday morning service on October 9 highlighted that devotion, as David Cousin proclaimed “Black lives do matter” while leading the worship. He warned about what he sees as an increase in racial division pushed by one of the presidential candidates. “God is always on the side of the oppressed,” he said. “Wherever oppression is, God is right there.” New York State Representative Annette Robinson spoke as part of the service, too, aiming to motivate the congregation to vote in November. Robinson began by citing her disappointment with the presidential campaign. “I’m deeply concerned about what’s going on in this world and Christians need to step up. People talk about praying but they don’t always pray. Our people pay the price when you don’t vote.
“I encourage you to go and vote,” Robinson said. “We need to change the dynamics in this country.” The choir then sang “Bow down before Him, thank Him for His grace.”
Gentrification is one of the main issues facing Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bridge Street is feeling it. Valerie Cousin talked about this challenge by citing the church’s long history. “When we were located at 309 Bridge Street, we were very active in the life of the community by being a stop on the Underground Railroad as well as being active participants in the abolitionist movement. Notable people such as Frederick Douglass (1867) and Harriet Tubman spoke from its pulpit.”
Keeping such a powerful community connection now is harder. The change in demographics as a result of gentrification has pushed veteran Bed-Stuy residents from their established communities to more affordable neighborhoods. As David Cousin puts it, “Gentrification is displacing some of our members. This is a community.” Bridge Street’s congregation is mostly made up of people who have been attending the church since birth, some for 20 to 30 plus years. One member who says she is over sixty, Betty Washington, calls Bridge Street “a wonderful, loving, God-fearing church. People move out. New people come in. But, we are welcoming of the new neighbors.”
Since purchasing its current property in 1938 from the Grace Presbyterian Church and moving into Bedford-Stuyvesant,Valerie Cousin says Bridge Street has remained “very involved in the socio-political life of the community,” holding “excellent” relationships with elected officials. Bridge Street feeds more than 300 people weekly, she said, through its “free feeding and clothing program.” It has also created some 350 units of single, multi-family, and mixed-use affordable housing, through the Bridge Street Development Corporation.