Ward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church has stood in Iola since 1873, and “We’ll be here until there aren’t but four or five of us left,” stated 55-year member Helen Ambler.
That day may be coming.
Ward Chapel has seen its membership decline rapidly the last seven years.
In 2003, the church celebrated its 130th anniversary. At the time, there were about 25 active members. In the past few years, about half a dozen have died, Ambler said.
Ward Chapel now counts 17 members. Average age, 70.
Its pastor, the Rev. Barbara J. Miniefee, comes on Sundays from Kansas City to tend the flock.
Sunday school runs for an hour before services, from 10 to 11 a.m. Services follow for about an hour and a half, Ambler said.
“Most of us are retired. What difference does it make if we stay a little longer,”Ambler asked.
Miniefee appreciates her congregation’s devotion.
“They are very good people,” she said. “They not only love their church, they love the Lord.”
Miniefee said the tiny congregation “has a sense of family; I see how they take care of each other.” If she had her druthers, she’d be here more often to assist.
“I would love to live there, quite frankly,” Miniefee said of Iola.
But Miniefee’s husband is an over-the-road trucker, based out of Kansas City, she said.
“I’ve stayed overnight,” Miniefee said. “When I was there I felt that sense of warmth, of connection — I’ve missed that. People are so distant now.”
Miniefee took over leadership at Ward Chapel in September 2009.
“I have been blessed,” she said of receiving the pastorship. “You never know when you go into a church what you will be faced with.”
Still, even Iola has its issues.
“One of the challenges I face is the age of the congregants,” Miniefee said. “I hate to think of losing the church. Hopefully, God will send some younger people (to us). I would like to think there would be times I would do weddings, not just end of life” celebrations, she noted.
Miniefee puts her hope in the Lord. “Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up, I will bring all people to me.’ That’s what I’m hoping for.”
ALTHOUGH she lives two hours away, Miniefee is passionate about serving Ward Chapel.
“I try to make sure when someone is in the hospital or at home, that I go by and see them or call them during the week,” she said.
“I want people to … leave each Sunday with a message they can use in their lives; so that when they meet people, people can see Jesus in them because they’re so busy living it.”
To further expand, and better serve Iola, Miniefee would like to “become part of the community, maybe do some workshops,” she said. “I want to do a series on Revelations. I want to do something on angels, on letting them understand how Satan works in our lives.
“I want our church to stand out as one that’s really walking the talk,” she said.
Ward Chapel is an African Methodist Episcopal denomination, but all are welcome, she said.
The AME church was founded in the late 1700s when two brothers, members of St. George’s Methodist Church in Pennsylvania, were denied communion with white congregants. Richard Allen, one of the brothers, left that church, purchased a blacksmith shop and founded the first African Methodist Episcopal congregation, Miniefee said.
“The Episcopal is how we are governed,” she explained. Methodist is the philosophy, based upon “John Wesley’s 25 Articles of Religion; the Apostle’s Creed is a summary of the 25 articles,” she noted.
Miniefee’s own journey to the church began long ago.
“I grew up in the Baptist church,” she said. “I realized I was called very early in my life, probably at about age 15,” the 67-year-old noted. “But women were not in leadership in the Baptist Church, so I thought I must have had it wrong.”
Miniefee went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and master’s in education, hoping to squelch the urge to speak about God.
“I had something inside of me, I almost couldn’t contain it,” she said. “It was like a fire shut up inside my bones. I just felt I had to say something about God.”
Miniefee noted, “My peer group wondered what was wrong with me, talking about God and reading the Bible. I thought once I became a speech pathologist that feeling would leave me, but no, it got stronger.”
After receiving her master’s degree, Miniefee said, “I thought once I was teaching in the classroom (the need to preach) would leave me, but it got worse and worse. I preached at my house to the walls,” Miniefee admitted. “I just had to.”
In 2004, Miniefee decided to ask the Holy Spirit “where He wanted me to preach. He led me over to the AME church.”
Miniefee was living in Ann Arbor, Mich., at the time, and began attending Bethel AME Church.
She spoke to the pastor there about her desire and “he told me, if God has been speaking to me all these years, I had to honor that.”
Miniefee soon began pastoral training. “In the AME Church, you go through a five-year program,” she said.
Within a week of being ordained, she was assigned to Iola’s Ward Chapel.
Miniefee found not only her voice through the AME, she found her husband, Danny.
“He’s got family that goes to Bethel,” she said. They had asked her to dinner, she said, “and I really didn’t want to go, but they kept on.”
The day she acquiesced, Danny was visiting from Kansas City. “We shook hands and we both knew, this is the person I am going to marry.”
Miniefee visited Danny in Kansas City “to see if it was a good idea.” The two spent the entire visit talking, she said.
“I visited again for nine days — that’s when we decided to get married,” she said.
AS A PASTOR, Miniefee begins preparing her sermons the Sunday before they are to be given.
“I’ve never really counted the hours,” she said of the time she puts in. “I try to get to them as early in the week as possible so I can get them in my spirit.” Miniefee doesn’t follow a church calendar in preparing her talks. “It’s whatever God gives me,” she said.
“I think prayer is the root of Godliness. It’s how we are transformed. It’s the direction God gives us. We communicate with God through prayer and He communicates with us through His word. It’s central.
“Prayer should be a regular part of your life,” Miniefeee said. “It should be done throughout the day.”
Miniefee has been well-received in Iola.
“She speaks directly from the Bible. She’s more of a teacher than a preacher,” Ambler said.
“People tell me they discuss my sermon during the week and if somebody is not there (on Sunday), they tell them what the sermon was about,” Miniefeee noted.
That speaks to the congregation’s commitment, Miniefeee said.
“Even though they are a small group, they are big in spirit. I don’t mind mind driving down — I almost can’t wait to go” each Sunday, she said.
“Every time I go down to teach and preach I feel so good about it. I have peace now because I’m doing what God created me to do.”