CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Aug. 22, 2019) -- Many of the members at St. Elmo United Methodist Church remember where they were when their sanctuary was destroyed by fire 10 years ago on Aug. 23.
That’s because many of them were there, standing on St. Elmo Avenue on a Sunday night as the flames leapt through the building.
“It was like watching a movie, it was so surreal,” Barry Condra told The Call in 2009.
Sophie Lowe, who was in 7th grade at the time, remembers crying and holding her new puppy as the crisis unfolded before her. It was not lost on her then or now what a fetching image that was for the local media.
Danny Tullier also remembers watching the fire. “The unknown is always scary – that trepidation and not knowing what our next steps would be,” he says. “There was never a fear of the church body breaking up. My fear was, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
A decade later, Tullier and his fellow members know some of the answers to that question. St. Elmo not only rebuilt (and improved on) the structure consumed by the fire. The congregation continues to reach out to groups not visible in other United Methodist congregations and shares vibrant worship and ministry with the community around them.
“We have always been a home for people who feel outcast or feel spiritually lost,” says Lowe. “And through these years we’ve honed the ability to care deeply for each person who enters the doors and show them what family feels like.”
The building that burned in August 2009 was dedicated in August 1921 and later listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although authorities initially suspected a hate crime, an investigation showed the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction in the church attic.
After meeting in the nearby Seventh Day Adventist church and then Lookout Mountain United Methodist Church, the St. Elmo congregation finally moved into their new $3.8 million building (financed through insurance) in May 2012.
“You really learn what you’re made of when you go through something stressful,” said Condra. “Through the process of rebuilding, we’ve bonded together and grown stronger, even though we’ve literally been through the fire in other ways.”
Since the 1990s when the Rev. Bruce Spangler was pastor, St. Elmo has been known as the church that is not only inclusive of neighborhood children of all colors, but of the lesbian and gay community, Condra said.
In 2014, St. Elmo was the first congregation in Holston to vote to affiliate with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a movement advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQI people in the church.
St. Elmo members were discouraged in February 2018 when Holston Conference withdrew the license of one of their pastors, Anna Golladay, for officiating at a same-sex marriage, Condra said. Church law does not allow United Methodist pastors to officiate at or churches to host same-sex weddings.
Another blow for St. Elmo came in February 2019 when the United Methodist General Conference voted to strengthen church laws against same-sex weddings and ordination of gay clergy, Condra said. “I’ve really struggled on whether I need to remain United Methodist or not.”
Like Condra and many others, Tullier was drawn to St. Elmo after hearing about its open doors to the LBGTQI community.
“It was like walking through the doors of my grandma’s house and getting a big hug,” he said of his first visit in 2001. “To me, that’s what St. Elmo, the Scenic South District, Holston Conference, and The United Methodist Church are all like.”
In May 2019, St. Elmo was one of a handful of Holston churches whose members participated in the UMCNext Conference in Leawood, Kansas. Tullier was one of 13 Holston members attending the unofficial conference, which committed to “work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the [Book of] Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons.”
“We have a lot of moxie in our church, and we greatly love our denomination and Wesleyan heritage,” Tullier explained. “But that doesn’t keep us from saying, ‘We can do things better.’”
On July 1, St. Elmo welcomed a new pastor, the Rev. Debra Dickerson, to guide it through its next phase. The current average worship attendance is 106, she says.
“My observation is that they have been a phoenix rising from the ashes, a resilient community that continues to grow in love and grace,” Dickerson said.
A glance at the calendar reveals the church has been busy this summer and will continue to be, offering vacation Bible school, “theatre camp” for the youth, free Saturday lunches and a “blessing of the animals.”
On Sunday, Aug. 25, the congregation will host a “Celebration of Life” potluck, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the fire.
On Sunday, Sunday, Sept. 15, St. Elmo will host a “Holy Conversations” gathering from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., including worship and small-group discussions about the future of The United Methodist Church.
The church has been intentional about inviting and caring for children from the neighborhood, sponsoring them to Camp Lookout and Holston Conference youth events throughout the years, Lowe said.
“We love unconditionally, we encourage you if you feel down, and no matter what, there will always be food on the table,” she said.
Church member Mike Rice proudly shows off new murals he painted outside the church, visible from a neighborhood walking path. The mural reflects the African-American, Hispanic, and white children within the church and community, Rice said.
The Rev. Sullins Lamb, a retired Holston Conference clergy member, grew up in the St. Elmo neighborhood. His photo is on a wall of honor in the church, along with others who answered a call to full-time ministry from St. Elmo United Methodist Church.
Lamb is the father of Lisa Nichols, a United Methodist Church and Community Worker who worked with low-income children in the neighborhood 15 years ago. A 2004 story inThe Call follows her as she leads an after-school bus ministry at St. Elmo. Today, Nichols is the new director at Jubilee Project in Sneedville, Tennessee.
At the conclusion of a recent Sunday worship at St. Elmo, Sullins Lamb looks tearfully and proudly around the sanctuary as worshippers bubble around each other, preparing for choir practice or planning new events.
He says he has already asked the organist to play for his funeral. He talks a little about his childhood in St. Elmo and the diverse mix of choir members who just sang an emotional anthem about Jesus’ victory at the cross. (Last year, the choir performed at Carnegie Hall in New York.)
“If you want to see the Kingdom of God,” Lamb says, before heading to an elevator that would not have been available before the fire, “it’s at St. Elmo United Methodist Church.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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