By Lauren Center
A white non-descript building sits on the corner of 9th Avenue North and 37th Street North. At first you think it might be a house, an old, simple, somewhat run-down house. But then you see a sign in the lawn of the street corner: it is a church, not a house. What is this church? Who are the people who worship here, in this industrial area in East Birmingham? You look closer and see the sign says, “Zion Star A.O.H. Church of God”.
If you came here on a Sunday morning, you would be warmly welcomed by the clergy and members of Zion Star, a small, Oneness Holiness, African American church. But today there isn’t anyone to be found in or near the building. This is because Zion Star doesn’t have any full-time staff: the pastor is bi-vocational. Overseer Christopher Thomas Sr. is a schoolteacher during the week and is a preacher on Sunday.
The location, the story, and the current practices of Zion Star A.O.H. Church of God show us what it is like to be a small African American church near the center of Birmingham. This church shows us how churches like Zion Star have adapted to changes throughout Birmingham’s history, and how this church continues to address the experiences of the members today.
The Move from the Southside
Zion Star was not always in this white building on 37th Street North, in the neighborhood of East Birmingham. The congregation was founded sometime after Bishop William Thomas Phillips founded the denomination in Mobile, Alabama, in 1916. For decades the congregation was part of a cluster of African American churches near the current site of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Bartow Area. The 1956 edition of Polk’s Birmingham City Directory gives the address of Southside A.O.H. church as 1325 7th Avenue S. Less than one block from Southside were Southside C.M.E. and Shiloh Baptist churches. It was also within three blocks of Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic, Union Bethel A.M.E. and Sixth Avenue Baptist churches. In the 1960s this established African American community was completely disbursed by the development of the University of Alabama medical center, soon to be followed by the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (Connerly 2005).
The other churches in the neighborhood moved southwest, most about 2 miles to Titusville. In 1967, however, the A.O.H. Church of God moved almost three miles northeast to East Birmingham. Census records for 1970 suggest that Titusville and East Birmingham had similar demographic profiles. These churches’ new sites were suited for the age of the automobile. The larger ones had expansive parking lots. But village-like cluster of houses of worship along 6th and 7th Avenues South was lost.
In 2019, the demographic profile of Zion Star’s old and new neighborhoods are quite different. According to the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), 47.7% of people living in the census tracks included in a 0.5-mile radius from Zion Star are living below the poverty line; whereas in a 0.5-mile radius from Zion Star’s old location on 7th Ave S, 39% of people live below the poverty line and only 39% of people are African American, compared to 83% African American a 0.5-mile radius from Zion Star’s current location (ARDA).
This statistic, the historical intertwining of race and economics in Birmingham, and the content and focus of the preaching of Overseer Thomas imply that financial matters are an important component of the location and congregation of Zion Star.
Trusting the Lord to provide in the face of economic disparity was a significant theme of the sermon on Sunday, September 29, 2019. Overseer Thomas discussed times when he did not have a way to pay his bills, but the Lord provided just what he needed at the last minute. He told the congregation how they should trust God to do something good, instead of expecting bad things to happen. He encouraged the congregation to trust the Lord to provide, saying that if we do right by God, he will do right by us. Most of this discussion of trust, expectations, and provision was tied to finances and economic hardship. Thomas’s sermon on that day shows how the financial context of the church affects the congregation and the church life. Just as Zion Star responded to economic developments in the past, it continues to address the economic state of its congregants and its environment today.
In addition to economic context, the racial context of both East Birmingham and other A.O.H churches show the history of African American churches in Alabama. The racial make-up of Zion Star is representative the surrounding neighborhood: predominantly African American. The congregation reflects the surrounding environment and their denominational affiliation as well. Zion Star is part of the Apostolic Overcoming Holiness Movement, which was originally formed as the Ethiopian Overcoming Holy Church of God in Mobile, Alabama. The denomination changed the name in 1941 from the racially specific Ethiopian to the inclusive Apostolic, since God’s message is for all people (Mead 164). The A.O.H. was founded as an African American religious group and remains predominantly African American to this day. Since the A.O.H. is a group that is historically African American and is Alabama-based, Zion Star’s affiliation to the A.O.H. shows how their church identity is tied to themes of race in a place like Alabama, or more specifically, Birmingham.
The story of Zion Star A.O.H. Church of God is just one story. Zion Star shows us how the history of Birmingham has uniquely affected small, African American churches. Furthermore, this church not only reflects the history of this kind of religious experience in Birmingham, but it also exemplifies what Zion Star, and churches like it, had to do to survive in the face of the rapidly changing context. The turmoil and the progress of the city of Birmingham over the last one hundred years have transformed white churches and black churches alike, yet in distinct ways. For black churches, this may have meant moving to a new location because of urban renewal like Zion Star did in 1967. It may have looked like becoming a church that is founded on a larger theme of identity as a racial minority in Alabama, just as Zion Star exemplifies through their affiliation to the A.O.H. Both through past decisions and current worship practices, Zion Star has responded well to the unique challenges of its social and geographical location.
Zion Star Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God
Address: 900 37th St N, Birmingham, AL 35222
Current Site Opened: 1967
Affiliation: Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God, Inc.
“Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God, Inc.” Accessed November 7, 2019. https://www.aohchurch.com/
“The Association of Religion Data Archives | Community Profile of East Birmingham.” Accessed October 23, 2019. http://maps.nazarene.org/ARDADemographics/economic.html?y=3966664.2955006137&x=-9660846.390782138&b=.5.
“Birmingham, Alabama Population 2019 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs).” Accessed October 22, 2019. http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/birmingham-population/.
Connerly, Charles E. 2005. “The Most Segregated City in America”: City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Polk’s Birmingham (Jefferson County, Ala.) City Directory. Richmond, VA: R. L. Polk, 1956.
Mead, Frank. Handbook of Denominations in the United States. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001.
“The Zion Star Apostolic Overcoming Holiness Church of God.” Accessed October 23, 2019. http://zionstaraoh.com/History.htm.
Lauren Center ’20 was a student in the Religion in Place: Avondale course in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2019.
Published November 7, 2019.