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New World Outlook Magazine
A Mission to Serve, Then and Now: Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta
A Mission to Serve, Then and Now:
Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta
Christie R. House*
Grace United Methodist Church got its start in 1871 in the burgeoning neighborhoods northeast of Atlanta’s city proper. After the US Civil War ended, Atlanta’s population began to spread out in all directions, but the churches were still located in the old city. Grace UMC first developed as an outreach in mission—a Sunday school for children living in one of Atlanta’s northeastern subdivisions. Patsy Woods, whose family started attending the church in 1919, serves as Grace Church’s historian. She explains: “In Atlanta, the downtown Methodist churches thought it was a little too far for children to come into town for Sunday school, so they sent Sunday school teachers out into this development to provide Christian education for the new residents.”
Building on Ponce de Leon Ave. in the 1930s.
Photo by Grace United Methodist Church
That first congregation was located at what is now Boulevard and Irwin Street, known then as St. John’s Mission. The Rev. George W. Hardaway served as its first pastor. Within 12 years, members outgrew their humble beginnings and needed to build. In 1884, the congregation moved to “the Boulevard Church” at Boulevard and Cain Street, when St. John’s Mission was officially constituted as Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, South. But by 1906, the congregation built larger quarters at the “Highland Avenue Church.” Grace Church continued to grow and prosper on that corner until 1917, when the church and its members were shaken to their very foundation.
Grace UMC chancel in 1954.
Photo by Grace United Methodist Church
A TURNING POINT
The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 destroyed 1,938 buildings, wiped out 300 acres of real estate, and left more than 10,000 people homeless—almost one-tenth of the city’s residents, all within a day. History records show how the Great Fire actually resulted from four small fires that all started on the morning of Monday, May 21, 1917. Fueled by wind and fed by wooden cottages along its path, the fire spread for more than 50 city blocks. Though fire crews headed to Atlanta from cities across Georgia and nearby states, the bucket brigades couldn’t keep up. The flames moved so fast and consumed so much of the subdivision that the fire chief decided the only way to stop it was to dynamite the large, stately homes in its path, creating a break the flames could not cross.
A map of the neighborhoods destroyed by the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917.
Art by The Atlanta History Center
Patsy Woods says 1917 was a big turning point, “both for the city of Atlanta and for Grace Church. The fire destroyed 90 percent of the homes of our members—I mean completely destroyed. There was nothing but chimneys left, block after block.” The congregation’s Highland Avenue church building also burned to the ground.
Much of the area had been an elite section of town. Woods said many of the city officials had lived there—including the city attorney and the mayor. The smoky neighborhoods smoldered for weeks after the fired ended, while displaced people camped out in city parks or sought shelter with friends and family in other areas.
“They began building apartments to provide immediate housing,” Woods continued. The fire, even to this day, dramatically changed the landscape of what is now known as Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. Today, the Bedford-Pines apartments in this same area along Boulevard form the largest Section 8 housing project in the Southeastern region of the country. The great majority of its residents are African American.
BEFORE AND AFTER: Grace Highland Avenue Church before 1917—and the skeletal remains—all
that was left after the 1917 Great Atlanta Fire. Photo by Grace UMC, Atlanta
In 1917, with 90 percent of its members homeless and their possessions incinerated, Grace Church was faced with a big decision. Should the congregation stay in the neighborhood and rebuild? How could this be accomplished?
FROM THE EMBERS
Yet, like a phoenix, the church rose again. At first, services were held in a neighborhood school. The congregation started small, building an “all-purpose” structure slightly farther north on Ponce de Leon Avenue, the church’s current location. “That was the building I grew up with,” Woods recalled. “There was an auditorium that was used both for Sunday school assemblies and for worship services. Then the sanctuary was built in 1922.”
In the years between the two world wars, the church stepped out in faith and decided not to leave the area devastated by the fire. Yet, World War II was another hardship, and the church came close to folding after the war.
“We did not have many members,” Patsy said. “We were debt-free at that time, but our membership was low. Then the bishop sent the Rev. Dr. Charles L. Allen to our congregation (serving Grace 1948-1960). He was a young man who had quite a gift for preaching and a vision for outreach. All of the sudden, Grace expanded tremendously. When I was a teenager in the 1940s and 50s, we had so many people coming to hear Charles Allen, our congregation grew to more than 5,000 people. We had to put chairs in the aisles, in between the front pews, in the chancel area and narthex, even in the Sunday school rooms, which were fitted with speakers so people could hear the sermons.”
Another building campaign ensued, expanding the sanctuary with transepts on either side, in the shape of a cross, adding 500 seats to the sanctuary. Within 10 years, a Community Outreach building was added to the Grace campus. Part of the amazing growth of the church can be attributed to Dr. Allen’s charismatic preaching, but also to his ability to harness the communications media of his time. He was a prolific writer, producing books as well as a regular column in the Atlanta Journal. His services were broadcast via both radio and television, drawing a wide audience inside and beyond Atlanta.
After Dr. Allen, Grace Church maintained its membership with two more strong leaders, the Rev. Cecil Myers (serving 1960-1970), and the Rev. Dr. Sam H. Coker (serving 1970-1985). Patsy noted that along with being good preachers, the men were also strong organizers. From 1948 to 1985, the congregation bought a total of 13 properties as houses became available, adding to its campus and opening ministries to serve women, children, youth, and those who were homeless and hungry.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the environment around Grace Church saw further change, and the rise of the suburbs began to siphon off members. Atlanta’s metropolitan area greatly expanded. The neighborhoods immediately to the south of the church, across Ponce de Leon Avenue, with predominantly African-American residents, declined—plagued with crime, drugs, and prostitution. A general trend across the city was that predominantly white, upwardly mobile residents moved to the outskirts of the ever-wider stretching city limits—just as people had after the Civil War, after the Great Fire of 1917, after World War II—and so forth.
Grace Church saw its 5,000-member congregation shrink to 835 members in 1997, constituting a loss of 84 percent of its membership over a 30-year period. As membership decreased, so did revenue, and the magnificent physical property, built to accommodate thousands, became a burden of unending maintenance. In addition, the congregation experienced the loss of a young pastor who died of cancer.
But also in 1997, the church’s next senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. John A. Beyers, had a vision for Grace United Methodist Church as a vital “Center City” church. Once again, the remnant membership of Grace was energized to dig-in. Meanwhile, the neighborhoods to the north were experiencing an upsurge of gentrification. A major bequest allowed Dr. Beyers to develop a radio ministry that targeted young adults in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area, drawing more visitors and subsequent members to worship.
Grace was expanding again as a church with a mission in the Old Fourth Ward. The buildings on campus were refitted again—a former chapel and adult classroom became a new nursery, children’s chapel, and Sunday school classrooms filled with babies born into the church family. Another wing of the third floor educational area was devoted to youth ministry. A Community Outreach Center housed numerous nonprofit community agencies that benefitted the larger community and provided hands-on mission opportunities for church members.
Grace United Methodist Church exterior after the 2006 renovation.
Photo by Grace UMC in Atlanta
The congregation rose, and fell, and rose again—and today, the landscape has changed once more.
Patsy Woods resumes the narrative: “In the last few years, we haven’t had that kind of membership. Many of the downtown churches in Atlanta are really suffering for members. One right down the street from us has sold its property. It will close in December. The largest churches in Atlanta are now on the outskirts of the city.”
A GLOBAL CONNECTION
Today, membership at Grace UMC hovers around the 200 count. In 2014, the church leadership was not really sure of the road ahead. Debt and maintenance of the property had a strangling effect on the congregation’s ministries. A plan was formed to sell one of the buildings on the Grace campus, but even that would not bring in enough money to clear their debt. Grace was in serious jeopardy of becoming one of those Atlanta churches that closed its doors.
But then, the congregation was approached by the General Board of Global Ministries and the North Georgia Conference to consider a proposal that was completely new. Grace United Methodist Church voted to sell its property to Global Ministries, the United Methodist mission agency, with the provision that it be given a cost-free lease to continue its ministry on the site. The agency would move its headquarters from Riverside Drive in New York City to Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta.
Grace United Methodist Church interior after the 2006 renovation.
Photo by Grace UMC in Atlanta
“If it had not been for Global Ministries, I have an idea that Grace Church would have folded completely by now,” concluded Patsy Woods. “I think it was God’s plan that we continue to minister in the area where we are. We had come within two days of selling off a piece of our property when Global Ministries made the offer that would help us stay in place. That was quite a miracle. This seemed to be the answer that God was providing for our prayers.”
Calissa Dauterman, Grace UMC’s current minister of Spiritual Formation and Growth, explained that two years ago, the congregation worked to craft a vision statement to lead their work forward. “We are seeking to be a community that feeds our community spiritually and physically, that reaches out in God’s love, and that intentionally welcomes all in the name of Christ,” Dauterman quoted. The statement describes Grace as “a vibrant, inclusive Christian community in the heart of Atlanta, an urban congregation with a global reach. Our church is committed to ministry with the Midtown and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods of our city.”
“We focus on those three things,” Dauterman explained, “feeding, reaching, and welcoming. For us, feeding means both the actual work of feeding, but, more importantly, the work of spiritual development for ourselves and for the people in our community. I think that we discerned, as a congregation, that we are a church with gifts around hospitality and food.”
The work and ministry of Grace United Methodist Church is not yet finished. The congregation enters a new phase of ministry—another phase in a long history of ups and downs, highs and low—seeking through all of its experiences to discern the will of God for its mission and purpose. Today, staying in the Old Fourth Ward and digging in means that Grace is finding new partners for ministry, not only the connection with Global Ministries but also local and Atlanta-based partners to share the burdens and joys of serving its neighbors.
*Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Winter 2017 issue. Used by permission.
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