The Reverend Derrill A. Blue, pastor of Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, grew up in Lee County, North Carolina, an area filled with reminders of the South’s past. The county is named for Civil War General Robert E. Lee and, indirectly, so is Lee County High School where he graduated in 2001. It was in that institution that he first began to think that he might have a religious calling but wasn’t ready to respond quite yet.
A year later, during his freshman year at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University in Greensboro, he heard the call again. “I felt like this was what I really wanted to do.” But he needed confirmation. During spring break, he returned home and sought advice from his pastor at the A.M.E. Zion church his family attended.
After listening to the young man explain that he felt an inner calling, the pastor answered that he had always known it was Derrill’s destiny. “The call has always been there but I wanted to make sure that you knew it was God calling and not man calling.” Three months later, June 9, 2002, Reverend Blue preached his first sermon and has been in ministry ever since.
“The church has always been forward thinking, and that kind of laid out the path to help move society forward in so many ways.”
“I stayed on staff with my pastor for four years and then I was given my first church in 2006.” That church was Erwin Memorial in Erwin, North Carolina followed by A.M.E. congregations located in Oklahoma, and two churches in Mississippi. In 2014, he was named pastor for Mount Olive A.M.E. Zion church in Waterbury, CT.
In December 2017, Reverend Blue received a call from the bishop that presided over much of the northeastern United States. The Reverend Dr. Kenneth Q. James, longtime pastor at the Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on Clarissa Street, had just been reassigned to a church in Charlotte, NC. Would Reverend Blue be willing to accept the position? “I had a conversation with my wife, and we prayed about it. And she and I both felt, ‘Okay this is where we want to go and explore this opportunity.’” He took pulpit in the Corn Hill Church on the first Sunday of the New Year, 2018.
Having grown up in an A.M.E. Zion Church, Reverend Blue is deeply appreciative of its rich tradition. “It has a really beautiful history,” he says, a story that includes Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. “The reason they were a part of our church is because we have a foundation in civil rights and also in abolishing slavery. They recognized that education was a big thrust in our denomination and so a lot of people joined the AME Zion Church. We kind of hash tag it as The Freedom Church. The church has always been forward thinking, and that kind of laid out the path to help move society forward in so many ways.”
Nearly 200 years ago, the Reverend Thomas James, an escaped slave from Canajoharie, New York, founded an A.M.E. Church on Favor Street. When New York State abolished slavery on July 4, 1827, the newly freed slaves built up a community around that small African Church, as it was known, just a few yards from the largest mansions and the wealthiest families in Rochester at that time. In the basement of that church, Frederick Douglass first published his historic North Star newspaper. These events give the old Third Ward, today’s Corn Hill, the right to be recognized as the birthplace of Rochester’s African-American community.
During the short time he has been in Corn Hill, Reverend Blue is fully aware of this history and the social responsibility it brings. He has identified areas in our vicinity that suffer from poverty and what he calls “food insecurity.” Through an outreach ministry called Beyond the Sanctuary, the Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church is working to assist those in need with food and clothing. It also collaborates with other churches and religious groups to locate sources for assistance it cannot provide.
Such generosity befits the Christmas celebration this month.
“We focus on the birth of Jesus Christ. And we try to explain to our children, it’s not about getting gifts. It’s also about being a blessing and a gift to other people. And so we do service activities where our young people go out and provide different gifts and food for other people who may not have what they have. This is so that they get a real worldview—their reality is not always someone else’s reality. Be grateful for what you have.”