I’m guessing that Rev. Marcus Allen gets the question a lot but I’m going to ask it anyways: Do people ever take notice that a rather young man is the new senior pastor at the 106-year-old Mt. Zion Baptist Church?
“Always! I get that a lot. I’m used to it,” Allen, who turned 34 recently, tells Madison365. “I started preaching when I was 13 and licensed to preach when I was 14 and I was ordained when I was 23 years old. I’ve always been the youngest in the room when it comes to church and church leadership. So, it’s fine. I am everyone’s son. People always tell me, ‘I’m old enough to be your mom or dad.’ That’s fine … because at the same time they still respect the position in which God has placed me in as pastor.
“But I’m getting older now,” Allen adds, laughing. “So, I’m waiting for the next person to come behind me and hopefully I can help them and mentor them. It can be a lonely position but it’s also very rewarding.”
Rev Allen is the new man at a very old Madison church. Pastor Marcus Allen’s Pastoral Installation was held earlier this month on March 5, but south side Madison churchgoers have been getting to know him since he started last October.
“I’ve learned quite a bit about Madison since I’ve been here. It’s a great environment and great city,” says Rev. Allen, who studied Divinity at Virginia Union University Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology in Richmond, Virginia. “The people have been very welcoming here and for that, my family and I are grateful.”
Allen was born in Clarksdale, Miss., and raised on the north side of Milwaukee. His family was involved in Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church since Allen was young.
“I’ve always been a very spiritual person. Since I could remember. I was baptized when I was 8 years old in Milwaukee,” Allen recalls. “I’ve been spiritual; but that doesn’t mean I’ve been perfect! I have strayed. I’ve faced some challenges and have gone through things like others have. I try my best to be very relatable even knowing that the majority of life has been focused on the word of God.”
Looking for opportunity, Rev. Allen joined the Army after high school and has been all over the world. He was stationed in Germany from 2002-2004 and had stints in Iraq and Afghanistan where he was deployed three times between 2003-2009 as a patrol and supply specialist for the U.S. Army. He was living a happy life as senior pastor at Union Branch Baptist Church in Virginia, when he says God led him to Madison, Wisconsin.
Allen at a young pastor’s conference for pastors under 40 years old and one of the professors from seminary from the Madison area mentioned the Mt. Zion Baptist Church opening to him.
“I wasn’t really looking to leave because I enjoyed my job, but I was telling him that I was really looking to go back home,” Allen recalls. “And he told me that this church just opened up and he’d e-mail me the information.”
He asked his wife, Terra, who had once told him that she would never live in Wisconsin because it was so cold, what she thought about living in Madison? “She’s from Alabama. She really hates the cold. But then she said, ‘Yes. Let’s do it. This is the will of God,’” Allen recalls. “I thought it would be a waaaay tougher sell that that.”
Allen’s family is pretty much all here in Wisconsin, mostly in the Milwaukee area, so living in Madison he gets to see them much more often now. “In Virginia, family was so far away whenever we want to do anything. It was difficult and expensive for all of us to fly home for the holidays or to drive 15 hours,” he says.
The most important question is, one winter down, how does Allen’s wife like Madison?
“My wife likes it a lot. She’s handled the winter pretty well,” laughs Allen. “Better than I have.”
Along with the weather, Rev. Allen has gotten to get acclimated with the people of Mt. Zion Church. Allen has learned quite a bit about the long and storied history of Mt. Zion Church, who celebrated their 100th anniversary back in 2011 and has always been involved deeply with social justice and civil rights. “This is the largest black Baptist church in the city and probably the largest black congregation in the city. It’s been around for 106 years,” he says. “It has an amazing history in this city.
“For me, coming from Virginia where 70 percent of the population was black it’s a different culture, too,” he adds. “We’re a multicultural church here. In my previous church, I’ve only had one person that wasn’t black. Here, I think we have between 5-10 percent non-black. The people that come to Mt. Zion really understand the importance of social justice from the pulpit when we speak on the injustices and disparities that happen to black people.”
Rev. Allen says that Mt. Zion needs to have a big impact on the area, and he feels that they are. “I often tell our church members that this church must be the hospital for the sick and the safe haven for the lost,” he says. “Mt. Zion is definitely the staple of this community. People are pretty familiar with us outside of south Madison … and we’re well-known for our great choir.”
Mt. Zion is located on Madison’s south side at 2019 Fisher St., just down the street from the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, the Urban League of Greater Madison, and One City Early Learning Center. There are a lot of potential partnerships in the area for Mt. Zion on Madison’s bustling south side.
“My main focus right now is looking at the structure of the church – where we are right now, where we want to go and how do we want to get there,” Allen says. “That comes with other collaborations in the community here. I’ve met with Mike [Johnson of Boys and Girls Club] and I’ve met with Kaleem [Caire of One City Early Learning] – both of them have been very welcoming to me and I look forward to working with them in the future along with Dr. [Rev. Alex] Gee who is nearby, too.”
Does Allen get asked a lot about the OTHER more famous Marcus Allen?
“Oh, yeah. Since I was a kid. I go to the dentist and they want to know if that’s my dad,” Allen laughs. “’If that was my dad, I wouldn’t be here,’ I tell them. ‘You’re not the running back from USC, are you? I remember you,’ people will say. ‘No, I’m the preacher.’ If I knew him, that would be great. But Marcus Allen is a very common name I’ve realized. In fact, my cousin’s name is also Marcus Allen. Sometimes he would get in trouble at school and they would call me instead.”
Mt. Zion Church’s Marcus Allen is making a name for himself on the city’s south side.
“I’m still learning the people and the personas of the community, but it gives me optimism to see the collaboration on some parts and seeing so many entities that are focused on the community,” Allen says. “There are a lot of people who are trying to do great things for our community – Dr. Gee, Michael Johnson, Kaleem Caire, Urban League, NAACP, MOSES, and Justified Anger. What I would love to see is a bigger collaborative effort of everybody coming together and focusing on tackling one big issue at a time and I think that will help us target areas of the racial disparity gaps that we continue to talk about.
“Homelessness, education, jobs. There are so many issues,” he adds. “I wonder what would be the larger impact if we all came together and focused on one thing and then pushed. We should be able to multitask, but I still think we can do a better job of working together.”
One of Rev. Allen’s goals is to have a mental health counseling center right at Mt. Zion where people can come in as they please.
“Mental health is a big issue in our community. I think it’s a leading cause of a lot of crime, a lot of sickness and illnesses. Just defining it and knowing about it and helping people through it,” Allen says. “A lot of my members, I’m hearing about depression. Depression is a force that people try to suppress and you cannot see it … or people ignore it. So I really want to focus on mental health here.
“Since I am a veteran, I also want to focus on veteran programs from the church or in the community where we are helping veterans with the PTSD, or with their VA claims, or with home buying or whatever they might need,” he adds.
What are his overall goals for the church?
“We want to be that kingdom of God and that beacon of light where people can find help and hope … where we can turn lives around and help people spiritually,” Rev. Allen says. “I want our church to be that trusted hub in this community where people know that they can come here for all of the resources that they need.”