The only way to get to the second floor of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church is to take the stairs. Doris Hill climbs each step slowly but determinedly, mindful of her troublesome health and the children’s well-being.
“Still no elevator here,” says the widow of Rev. Dr. Alfred DeWayne Hill, who led the 1,100 member congregation to build a new sanctuary and family life center in 1995, “but the children in this neighborhood need this program more than we need an elevator.”
Doris Hill grew up in this South Memphis neighborhood, graduated from South Side High in the 1970s. Times were tough then, too, but children seemed to have more supervision, more support back then.
“My parents and my grandparents invested in me, taught me right from wrong. Most of these kids, all they need is some direction. And some love.”
Hill has been trying to provide both for more than three decades. She served as youth pastor of Morning View Baptist Church, about half a mile to the south. That’s where she met her late husband.
“My pastor invited him to preach a revival,” she says not far from where his portrait hangs inside Pilgrim Rest. “I’d never heard of him. After I met him I told him he wasn’t my first choice. Of course, it wasn’t long before he was.”
Alfred Hill grew up in Chattanooga. He was a teenager when his father died. His mother worked as a housekeeper to support eight children. Alfred went to college, but family funds were so scarce he came home after one semester.
“An old missionary lady in their church heard about it,” Doris says. “She went around and collected money from the other old women, all of them housekeepers. She put it in a handkerchief and handed it to Alfred and told him to go back to school. He did. I met her a few years ago. I thanked her for helping raise me a husband.”
Alfred Hill became Pilgrim Rest’s pastor in 1979. He also taught religion classes at LeMoyne-Owen College. He and Doris were married in 1984. Their ministry grew, even as the neighborhood around the church at McLemore and Lauderdale declined. People would ask him when he was going to move the church, or find a safer place to serve the Lord.
“He always said you can’t serve people by running away from them,” Doris says. “The irony is, he survived McLemore only to be killed on vacation in New Orleans by the same sort of young people he was trying to help.”
The Hills had left Pilgrim Rest in August 2002 to find some rest in New Orleans. They were staying at a hotel in the Garden District. Early one morning, Alfred went out to find a drugstore. While he was sitting in his car at a red light, two young men approached and tried to rob him. He managed to drive away, despite being shot several times.
“They were looking for a luxury auto to carjack,” Doris says as she sits in the church Alfred built. “They could get more for the parts. Arthur was driving a Mercedes. I went on vacation with him and came home without him.”
Alfred DeWayne Hill was 54 when he died. The two men who shot him were 19 and 23. They are serving life sentences in prison.
“Those two young men who killed my husband, John Stewart and Norman Tilford, I had to forgive them so I could go on with my life,” Doris says. “I have nothing to say to them, but I do wonder still what might have happened with them if someone had intervened earlier in their lives.”
A few months before they went to New Orleans, Alfred and Doris Hill opened an after-school program on the second floor of Pilgrim Rest. They called it ESPN Academy. It has nothing to do with sports. ESPN stands for Education, Scholarship, Preparation, Nurture.
Every afternoon, two or three dozen neighborhood children climb the stairs to find a nutritious snack, help with their homework, supervision and support. As children begin to file into the church, Doris recounts some of the horrors they have encountered outside the walls.
The child whose mother was found dead and stuffed in a trash bin behind the church. The two children who saw a man shot to death at a nearby carwash. The children whose 13-year-old classmate was convicted of murdering another girl who was trying to break up a fight.
“These babies are surrounded by so many negative influences,” Doris says as she sits in a classroom filled with books, warm colors and caring adults. “They need a safe place where they can go after school just to be children for a while.”
Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church just celebrated its 100th anniversary, ESPN Academy its 10th. Alfred and Doris Hill’s son, DeWayne, volunteers at the program, which over the past decade has seen 100 percent of its students graduate from high school on time.
Not long after he became pastor of Pilgrim Rest, Alfred Hill discussed his approach to ministry in South Memphis.
“I’m fighting a definition that says to arrive is to live in a certain neighborhood, drive a certain car and have so much education,” he said in a 1983 interview in The Commercial Appeal. “To arrive should mean a sense of fulfillment with one’s self, a sense of mission and purpose for one’s people,” he said.
That’s what Alfred and Doris Hill discussed as they were driving to New Orleans 10 years ago.
“Alfred said he was so blessed to have accomplished so much in his life, considering where he started,” Doris says. “He felt a great sense of fulfillment. He said, ‘If God takes me now, I don’t have any regrets.’ That was such a gift to me.”
The work she does for ESPN Academy is her gift to him.
“After Alfred was killed, I wasn’t sure if I could go on with the program,” says Doris, whose goal is to open a charter school in the neighborhood. “But he would not want what happened to disrupt our dream. I had to stay engaged. If I sit around and can do it and don’t, that’s unacceptable. These children need all of us to intervene on their behalf.”