But church leaders weren’t prepared for the strangers they encountered when they bought a big, old and rapidly aging building in Cooper-Young in 2000.
They didn’t find bats in the belfry. They did find pigeons in the leaky ceilings, rats in the dank basement, roaches roaming the blistering plaster walls, spiders spinning around the cranky boilers, and what looked like a camp site in the sanctuary’s balcony.
“No way,” church moderator Julia Hicks thought to herself as she walked through the battered building in 2000, wondering if anyone other than a divinely inspired carpenter could turn “this behemoth ratty building into a tool of stewardship.”
First Congo, as it is known affectionately, eventually found a way.
Today, the spacious, gracious church hosts a thriving congregation of more than 300 as well as nearly three dozen ministries that provide thousands of others with food, clothing, shelter, schooling, counseling and instruction in everything from social justice to bicycle repair.
“I had never wanted to step into a building project and often joked about churches that felt the need for bigger and bigger cathedrals and sanctuaries. God had a laugh on me,” said Rev. Cheryl Cornish, senior pastor since 1988.
“This building has been a source of such joy and adventure. When I walk into the hallways, I never know quite what to expect except that it will be something wonderful. I love having space to welcome people. I love seeing the creativity of this city on display. I love having artists and activists and counselors all sharing the hallways together.”
First Congregational Church has been sharing its space at various locations and in various ways for 150 years, as members were reminded at a sesquicentennial celebration earlier this month.
The church was established after the 1862 Battle of Memphis when the Union Army commandeered Second Presbyterian Church on Beale and began conducting services for Union soldiers.
A year later, President Lincoln freed “Union Chapel” from its military occupation, responding to complaints with a letter that read, in part, “The United States Government must not undertake to run the churches.”
From 1882-1910, First Congregational Church went by the name Strangers Church, a nod to its proximity to The Peabody and several other hotels that provided a constant stream of newcomers in need of spiritual nourishment and a hot cup of coffee.
First Congregational was the first church in Memphis to host a rabbi (Rabbi James Wax) as a guest preacher. It was the first church to send a female clergy to address the Memphis Ministers’ Association (Rev. Marie Wingfield in 1946).
The congregation helped form the National Council of Christians and Jews and the Memphis Interfaith Association.
And in 1991, it became the first church in the South to identify itself as “Open and Affirming” to lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people of faith.
“It signaled for exiled LGBT Christians in Memphis that the exile would soon be over in mainstream Protestantism,” said Rev. Tim Meadows, a gay man who was pastor of Holy Trinity Community Church in Memphis in the 1990s.
It also signaled a new mission for First Congo.
“We received bomb threats, and our members were sometimes shocked by the virulence of the homophobia in the wider community,” Cornish said.
“Some of us worried that this might be the end of the church they had known and loved. It felt like a radical thing to do, and nobody really knew how it would affect our membership or witness. I still remember the quote from one of our longtime members, in her 80s. She said, ‘Well, of course God would want us to welcome these people. That’s how God is. I just don’t want to.’”
Others didn’t either. The church lost members but continued to run a Christian welcome center, welcoming those with HIV/AIDS.
“We stood by people who were dying, having been abandoned by their families and loved ones,” Cornish said. “ We really learned what it meant to live by the power of Resurrection and the power of the Gospel. We learned that God walks with us as we take risks in the name of love — and that we don’t need to be afraid to love all of God’s children.”
Those lessons continue today.
First Congo provides space, social and spiritual support for Memphis Area Gay Youth, a support group for LGBT teens.
It also provides space for such ministries as Red Robin Academy (before- and after-school care), Depression Bipolar Support Alliance of Memphis, Full Circle Midwifery, and various counseling services and 12-Step groups.
The congregation continues to welcome thousands of strangers each year.
At the church’s Pilgrim House Hostel, the city’s only hostel, which hosts nearly 6,000 travelers each year from all over the world.
At the Pilgrim Retreat Center, which hosts hundreds of high school and college students for Freedom Journey, a ministry that uses the city’s civil rights history to teach nonviolence.
At the new Cycle Lodge, available to long-distance bicyclers who need a comfortable bunk, showers, laundry, cooking facilities, and access to the church’s Revolutions Bike Co-Op and repair shop.
The big building on South Cooper provides a home for Voices of the South Theatre Company, True Story Pictures, Music for Aardvarks, dance classes, fencing classes and cooking classes.
Its members and volunteers run the Loaves and Fishes Closet (a food pantry), the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, and the Global Goods Fair Trade store.
Its sanctuary hosts performances by The Eroica Ensemble, The Wolf River Orchestra, the Memphis Men’s Chorale, the Memphis Symphony and the Memphis Youth Symphony, Ballet Memphis, and the Luna Nova Ensemble.
“First Congo has helped me to think about inclusivity in a broader way,” said Rev. Sonia Walker, who became the church’s first African-American staff member five years ago.
“A church isn’t a building. It’s a community where all God’s people are welcome in all of their woundedness to find healing and restoration. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re still here.”
First Congo Timeline
1862: Union Chapel organized on Beale Street for sick or wounded Union soldiers.
1863: Chapel reestablished as First Congregational Church.
1865: First church building dedicated on Union near Third.
1878-1881: After yellow fever epidemic, church property leased for boys’ school run by Lyon Tyler, son of 10th U.S. President.
1882-1910: Church reconstituted as Strangers Church.
1894: Congregation moves to new building at 100 Union.
1910: Congregation reclaims name First Congregational Church, moves to new Ionic structure at South Watkins and Eastmoreland.
1957: Congregation votes to join United Church of Christ.
1988: Rev. Cheryl Cornish becomes the church’s 11th senior pastor.
1991: Congregation votes to become an “Open and Affirming” church to gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people of faith.
2000: Church moves to 1000 S. Cooper.