Since 1995, Verdell Taylor has been the pastor at St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, an East Lawrence entity with a deep history intertwined with the civil rights movement.
After his recent retirement, Taylor, 77, is celebrating his legacy of leading the church through a phase of transition. The congregation is getting ready for a new chapter, and growing into the future means staying grounded in its roots.
St. Luke AME has been a local leader on social justice issues since its founding more than a century ago. The church was built in 1910 at 900 New York St., and it quickly became a cornerstone for Lawrence’s Black community. St. Luke was mostly attended by people who had escaped enslavement, many on their journey through the underground railroad system. One of its most notable attendees was author and poet Langston Hughes.
With this rich history, Taylor landed St. Luke AME on the National, State, and Lawrence Registers of Historic Places in the early 2000’s.
But renovations come hand in hand with such a long history, and they’re some of the defining accomplishments of Taylor’s tenure as pastor. He says one of his most impactful experiences was the live art show he hosted in October 2019, which was part of a fundraiser to restore the building’s iconic stained glass windows, a project that is currently underway.
A legacy of service
A native of Leavenworth, Taylor started his career in education as an elementary teacher, college faculty member and graduate-level teacher. This left his Saturdays and Sundays open for preaching. But when he moved full-time into the ministry — his true passion — it wasn’t by choice.
“In Colorado Springs, I had a job in a particular district working with at-risk children. The policy at the time was just throwing these kids out of school,” Taylor says. “But I started to hold that district’s feet to the fire, because I knew those kids deserved an education, so I lost my job.”
This dedication to his principles pushed Taylor deeper into active ministry. He traveled the country, becoming the pastor at churches from Parsons, Kansas, to Roswell, New Mexico, as he was called to do so. He got the call to fill the vacancy at St. Luke in 1995.
“When I first came to the church on this corner, I connected with it immediately, because there’s such a story behind it,” he says. “And there were good members who would help as much as they could. It’s all about the people.”
Taylor also serves as the Inclusion, Diversity and Equity manager at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, a fitting role for someone who sees everything through an equity lens. He uses this equity-centered approach while serving the community both inside and outside the church.
“Reverend Taylor’s commitment to help not only his church but the community at large is amazing,” says Ollie Hall, a Lawrence resident who founded Herman’s Place, a free community restaurant that feeds those experiencing hunger and homelessness. Taylor has supported the effort since day one. “He helped me and other activists hold benefits for churches burned in the South. He kept the church going during the pandemic by using some of his own personal money to pay bills. He wouldn’t send people to jail who vandalized the church because of the power of forgiveness. Lawrence is a better place because of wonderful souls like Rev. Taylor.”
This kind of work leads Taylor to collaborate with other local churches, such as Velocity, where the head pastor is one of Taylor’s good friends.
“Rev. Verdell Taylor has been a mentor to many, and his influence extends beyond those who work with him directly,” says Erica Hill-Skar, a Velocity member. “He has been a source of strength and inspiration to so many. I will forever be grateful.”
Taylor says Lawrence is “a place where people work together.”
“I like the individual thinking, but also the ways we can get collectively involved here,” he says. “Even for little things like the Wishing Bench. After that was burned down, people came together to fix it and now it’s even better.”
Listening to people and understanding their unique needs is the key to building strong relationships, which form the foundation of Lawrence’s tight-knit community, he says.
“When you connect with the people in your neighborhood, you can feel certain things that have happened, decide on a course to make things happen, and align on those things,” he says. “It’s like climbing a mountain. You have to stay the course and not give up.”
The next chapter of the journey
Taylor has high hopes for the future of St. Luke AME and its congregation of about 75 people.
The church’s new pastor is Brandee Mimitzraeim, who prioritizes “creating safe places across the intersectional realities of race, sexuality, gender expression, and class within the church and in communities.”
The church remains focused on meeting the needs of local residents. Taylor mentions the potential of turning the building’s basement into a Langston Hughes Community Resource Center, as a place for people to gather, study and fill the gaps for students that struggled with virtual learning during the pandemic.
“It’s been a great ride, but this is no more than turning the page for the next chapter,” Taylor says. “I guess we just have to figure out what comes next.”
Learn more about St. Luke AME on its Facebook page.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters
Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.