Slow Church Stories #2: Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be sharing a number of stories of churches whose life together embodies some facet of Slow Church.  We hope these stories will stretch your imagination about what a Slow Church looks like.

Previous Story: Salem Alliance Church

Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church

Johnson City, TN

 *** Check out SLOW CHURCH on the Patheos Book Club this week

[ This story was told by our friend Phil Kenneson in a pamphlet on Slow Church that he wrote for the Ekklesia Project, entitled Praticing Ecclesial Patience, which can be read in full online here.  We tell an abbreviated version of this story in the Slow Church book]

I think of the congregation of which I am a part, a United Methodist church nestled in the heart of downtown Johnson City, Tennessee. About 15 years ago the congregation was in the midst of intense discussions among its membership. The subject was whether to expand our existing, aging facilities at their current rather land-locked location in downtown Johnson City, or to build a new campus out in the suburbs north of town where nearly all of the city’s growth was taking place. You can imagine what consultants recommended. But the congregations decided not to move and we had some very specific reasons to stay.

The main reason was bound up with an event that had taken place nearly a half dozen years before on Christmas Eve, 1989.  As church members were gathering early that evening for candlelight services, they were horrified to discover that the former John Sevier Hotel, a 10-story building that sat right across the street from the church, was on fire. The city’s tallest building was no longer a hotel, but had been converted to apartments for nearly 150 elderly and disabled residents. The church immediately canceled it services and became the hub of operations, including the gather ing and disseminating of information about missing residents, as hundreds of firefighters and paramedics converged on the scene. Before the bitterly cold night was over, the church also became a triage center and temporary morgue, with 16 residents losing their lives that night.

Needless to say, it was a sobering Christmas Eve. But one long-term effect on the congregation was to make it more attentive to its downtown neighbors. Sometimes the beauty of the world grabs your attention; at other times, tragedy does. Many members confessed to having previously paid scant attention to the folks who lived right across the street from our place of gathering. Even though the former hotel was at one point the pride of Johnson City, when it was repaired and reopened after the fire it operated as an apartment complex exclusively for low-income and disabled residents. And so the church began to examine ways it might be a better neighbor to these long-neglected folks across the street. So by the time these conversations arose about moving to the suburbs, the church was for the first time becoming involved with its neighbors. And this was the reason the congregation decided to stay, to abide, in downtown Johnson City. We believed we were there for a reason and that to leave would involve not merely abandoning an address and piece of property, but would mean abandoning these neighbors with whom we were trying to be in relationship. And so we stayed.

As a result, over these past 15 years the church has become a hub of care and aid for all of our downtown neighbors and not just our friends at the John Sevier Center. But it is slow work, and there is still so much of our own transformation that needs to happen. We are still far better at “doing for” than we are at “being with.” But, we are trying to do better, and each year I think there is a stronger and stronger sense that our neighbors are making us more than we would be without them, for in them we often meet Christ.


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