One week after a fire gutted their building on Telegraph Avenue, members of First African Methodist Episcopal church walked tentatively into Temple Beth Abraham, a synagogue on MacArthur Boulevard that for the near future is serving as the congregation’s temporary home on Sundays.

The service opened with a reading of “Still I Rise,” a poem by Maya Angelou about succeeding over adversity and critics. During his sermon, First A.M.E. Pastor Rodney D. Smith drew from the Bible story of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego, three Hebrew men who were thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to an image of King Nebuchadnezzar. The men survived, with God by their side.

“Sometimes we don’t know why God allows certain things to happen, but one thing is for certain: We will rise again,” he said. “Sometimes things have to burn down to build something greater.”

Members of the First A.M.E. choir sing during a Sunday service at Temple Beth Abraham on Feb. 26, one week after their church building was damaged by a fire. Credit: Ashley McBride

Established in 1858 as Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Church, First A.M.E. is the oldest Black church in the East Bay. A fire broke out on the night of Sunday, Feb. 19, decimating the stately building on the corner of 37th Street and Telegraph Avenue. Seventy Oakland firefighters responded to the blaze, which was under control by early Monday morning. The water from the hoses and recent storms have only added to the damage, Smith said. 

The Oakland Fire Department is working with police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to investigate the cause of the fire, but no evidence so far has shown that the church was maliciously targeted, an OFD spokesperson said. 

Because of the damage, the building has been red-tagged, which means no one is allowed inside without permission from the city of Oakland. 

It’s not the first time in its 165-year history that the church has had to rebuild, and church leaders see this as an opportunity for First A.M.E. to fulfill its mission of spreading its doctrine and helping those in need while they’re in the spotlight.

First African Methodist Episcopal Church Fire
Senior Pastor Rodney D. Smith of First African Methodist Episcopal Church poses for a photo near the church following a Sunday night fire at the building in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. “I’m out here because the work continues. This is just a building, but the ministry we do is beyond this building. The ministry we do is for our community and the people.” Credit: Amir Aziz

“Ironically, [during] Black History Month, the oldest (Black) church in the East Bay burns down, but what we do know is we’re going to rise above the ashes,” Smith said during the Sunday service on Feb. 26. “F.A.M.E. is now America’s church and you’re going to see people from all across the United States step up to the plate because this is an opportunity for Oakland.”

A storied history spanning 165 years in Oakland

In the days following the fire, The Oaklandside obtained historical records from the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, which, coupled with other available research on First A.M.E., helps piece together the church’s long and interesting history in Oakland. 

First A.M.E. began in the spring of 1858 as a mission started by members of the Flood and Peterson families, along with others, in a small house on 5th Street, presumably in West Oakland, according to an undated research paper at AAMLO. It was considered a mission because it had no pastor or chapel, and its “services” were held in various members’ homes. Other founding families included the Whitings, the Sandersons, and the Hollands, according to a synopsis of the church’s early history by Lydia Flood Jackson, a descendant of the Flood family. 

“F.A.M.E. is now America’s church and you’re going to see people from all across the United States step up to the plate because this is an opportunity for Oakland.” — Senior Pastor Rodney D. Smith

Barney Fletcher, who joined the mission in 1862, may have been the church’s first pastor. But Fletcher, who also helped to found the St. Andrews A.M.E. Church in 1850 in Brooklyn, New York, served for less than a year in the role. Abraham Gross took his place and was set on growing the mission into a full-fledged church, according to historian Martha Taylor, whose book, From Labor to Reward, chronicles the growth of Black churches in the Bay Area.

The church became official in 1863 under the name Shiloh A.M.E Church. That same year, the congregation purchased a schoolhouse—a small 20-by-30-foot redwood structure that was moved from an unspecified location to 7th and Market streets. The schoolhouse that members purchased was named Carpentier School House, and is alleged to be the first schoolhouse built in Oakland, according to records at AAMLO.

The earliest public schools in California did not admit Black, Asian, and indigenous students, causing some community members to open informal schoolhouses of their own. A member of the Flood family, Elizabeth Flood, who also appears have been one of the founders of the mission that eventually became First A.M.E., was a teacher who founded a school for Black children in Oakland 1857 in her “Brooklyn” home, according to documentation at AAMLO.

In 1884, Rev. James Grisby helped build a new church building on 15th Street between Market and West streets, and it was renamed First A.M.E. Church. 

1949 marked the beginning of an expansion era for First A.M.E. according to  Taylor in her book. Reverend Solomon Hill joined during this time and was instrumental in increasing the church’s membership. A souvenir program from the church’s centennial celebration in 1958 shows that the church by then had moved to its current location on 37th Street and Telegraph Avenue.

First A.M.E. has had to rebuild before

In 1986, Mary Glenn and her husband at the time, Frederick Murph, arrived in Oakland from Baltimore to lead the church. They worked to expand the church’s outreach programs by  establishing youth revivals to bring in more young members, hosting gospel music workshops and concerts, and hosting church conferences for the larger denomination. 

“We knew that it was an important church in the area and we needed to get it back to the point where the church was more involved in community activities, and more involved with the leadership of Oakland so that … people would want to be a part of it,” Glenn recently told The Oaklandside. 

“It was important to stay in that area and rebuild there.” — Mary Glenn

Those efforts were set back when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, damaging the sanctuary and making it uninhabitable. For the next two years, the church held services in the fellowship hall adjacent to the sanctuary, Glenn said. The pastors faced pressure to pay for repairs, while also supporting members with financial and other needs. But rather than look for a less expensive facility elsewhere, church leaders chose to stay at the Telegraph location. 

“It’s crucial to stay in an area where people know you and where people are not afraid to approach you. When you move a church, it can be detrimental to the people in that area because sometimes they can’t physically get to you,” Glenn said. “It was important to stay in that area and rebuild there.”

First African Methodist Episcopal Church Fire
Rev. Smith is greeted by Father Jayson J. Landeza, Chaplain of the Oakland Fire Department following the fire of FAME Oakland church in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Following last month’s fire, the building was red-tagged again and the church won’t be able to hold services there for the foreseeable future. Last week, church leaders walked through the building with insurance agents to assess the damage, and it could be several weeks before they know how much it will cost. But Smith intends to rebuild there, and their outreach ministries, which include providing meals to homeless people three times a week, will continue. Members still want to get married, be baptized, and hold funerals at the church, Smith said. 

“It’s not about rebuilding a sanctuary. What this is about is, how can we do greater ministry?” Senior Pastor Rodney D. Smith

“We have a serious homeless problem here, right? People are still trying to find jobs. The economy is still trying to get up and moving. We’re still living through a pandemic. And in the midst of all that, our church goes up in flames,” Smith said. “It’s not about rebuilding a sanctuary. What this is about is, how can we do greater ministry?”

The church started a GoFundMe after the fire for those who wanted to donate immediately, and there will be more fundraising campaigns once church leaders learn exactly how much it will cost to rebuild, Smith said. Services will also continue to be held at Temple Beth Abraham for the near future. 

First A.M.E. Pastor Rodney D. Smith delivers a sermon at Temple Beth Abraham, the church’s temporary home after a fire gutted their building on Feb. 16, 2023. Credit: Ashley McBride

Smith’s tenure as lead pastor, which began in 2020, hasn’t been the smoothest. His first day in Oakland was Sept. 9, 2020, when wildfires cast an orange glow across Bay Area skies. For his first year and a half here, Smith had to get to know his congregation virtually because of the pandemic. Last Easter brought in-person services back, but less than a year later, the church burned down. Donations and prayers have since poured in from across Oakland, the Bay Area, and the country. 

“Today is difficult because we are in a space and a season that we never thought we’d be,” said Smith. “But I believe that by the grace of God, that God would not bring us this far to leave us.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.