The Rev. Dr. Yvonne W. Penn: Community leader and Black History Month role model
By Joanne Turner
During Black History Month, we at the Hyattsville Life & Times wanted to recognize one of the many Black leaders in Hyattsville. We chose the Rev. Dr. Yvonne W. Penn, senior pastor with First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville (FUMCH), Penn has pastored the church since 2015, having previously served churches in Delaware and on the Eastern Shore.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Penn was president of her high school’s Carter G. Woodson Club. Woodson was a historian and dean at Howard University and is credited with establishing Negro History Week, in 1926, which evolved into Black History Month in 1976. Woodson reportedly chose February because it marks the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Penn’s parents were her greatest mentors. “My parents firmly believed that we were created to care for each other – I believe that as well,” said Penn during a recent interview. “When it comes down to Black History Month, it’s precious to me.”
Her parents were both involved in the civil rights movement. Penn recounted how her mother would volunteer at their church when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in town. While her mother was in the church making sandwiches, Penn would be outside playing. “I didn’t quite understand it, but I knew that someone of this magnitude was coming, that a lot of people would be there to hear this champion,” she said.
Her high school teacher Mrs. Young was another strong influence on her. Penn noted how Young would consistently tell her, “There is greatness in you, and you can do anything!”
Penn attended historically Black universities during her undergraduate and graduate studies, receiving her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University, in Richmond, Va., and her master of divinity from Howard University School of Divinity. She went on to receive a doctorate of divinity from United Theological Seminary, in Dayton, Ohio, in 2014.
Penn is more focused on serving her community than on conveying a list of degrees, though. “The [list of] schools I’ve attended is not important,” she said. “Here’s what’s important: it’s what we do for our brothers and our sisters.”
Penn was ordained an elder in the Peninsula Delaware Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1997. She served as senior pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Md., for 13 years before becoming the senior pastor at FUMCH. The church is more than 220 years old, and its multicultural community currently has over a thousand members, according to Penn. FUMCH’s mission statement is “One church, many cultures, going out in mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
When the pandemic started, Penn immediately wondered how the church could respond and serve the community. “When COVID[-19] came on the scene, and we saw all these people getting sick, I went into prayer,” she said. “I asked God, ‘What can we do as the body of Christ to help?’ I nagged the county, saying, ‘We want a testing site! We need a vaccine site!’”
The city eventually approached FUMCH, asking if the church would host a testing site, which they did; the site opened in June 2020. In March 2021, the church started hosting regular vaccination clinics, as well. The church’s response to the pandemic echoes one of Penn’s favorite Bible verses, Matthew 21:22, “And all things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”
Penn and FUMCH have maintained strong relationships with the city and its officials. “God has put greatness in the City of Hyattsville’s elected officials and administrators. I think that’s why I love them so much,” said Penn.
Penn officiated at Mayor Kevin Ward’s funeral service, held at FUMCH on Feb. 4. Prior to the service, Penn said, “[Ward] was a disciple of Jesus Christ. He cared about the people of this city. He loved the people. We have lost a great friend.”
When asked about challenges she and the church have faced, Penn responded, “I look at wherever I am; I’m where God would want me to be. I think there is more that we can do as the body of Christ. I thank God for being able to do some of it, which is helping to feed the poor.”
During the interview, Penn said that sometimes we all feel that we’ve done all we can do, which may lead us to a standstill. But, she emphasized, there is so much more greatness that God has in store for us. And when we can’t see it, ourselves, someone else may see it in us and push us towards greatness. “There is something special in you, in me and every single person in the city,” she added.
According to FUMCH’s website, Penn sees her roles as mother to one daughter and son-in-law, and grandmother to four grandsons as her highest honor.
“We were sent to take care of each other!” she declared.