Dawn Chesser: Honoring the place where I first experienced God

Dawn Chesser: Honoring the place where I first experienced God

Here is a picture of me as a child at St. James United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, around 1969. I was four years old.
On July 20, 2020, my father, the Rev. Lewis V. Chesser, died in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, at the age of 87. He was a retired United Methodist clergy with 36 years of service in the former North Arkansas Conference.
Yesterday, I shared this story on Facebook about him for the first time. When the Central Jurisdiction was ended in the Methodist Church in 1968 (for those of you who don’t know, you'll have to look up this awful history and read it for yourselves), my father was appointed to serve as the pastor at a historically Black church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
St. James United Methodist Church was established in 1861 by slaves, and the foundation upon which the church still stands was sited and laid in 1883. We believe my father was the first cross-racial appointment in the North Arkansas Conference. His appointment was expected to be temporary, but he ended up serving St. James for about eight years, from the time I was three until I was almost a teenager.
Suffice to say those years were a huge influence on my life, and on the life of my older brother Wib, to have grown up as the only white family in a Black church. We both loved St. James dearly and it deeply informed the adults we became.
In my own ordination process, I wrote about how St. James was the place that I first experienced God. I experienced God at St. James as a loving embrace -- a warm, comforting, central part of who I am and how I first knew the love of Christ.
Today, St. James is a small but faithful congregation, still offering ministry in its original building and location. I recently heard about the "legend of the bricks" from two pastors who served in Fayetteville, told to them by a longtime church member, Elizabeth Buchanan, now deceased. Apparently, many workers who constructed the original buildings at the University of Arkansas were Black folk. They were told they could take leftover and broken bricks home with them, so each evening the workers would carry bricks home in their pockets. Those bricks became the foundation for St. James.

Like other small congregations, St. James has been hard hit by the pandemic, but they carry on as best they can. Some of the children we grew up with are now adult leaders in the congregation. My brother and I can think of no better way to honor my father and mother's legacy than to establish a memorial fund to benefit the congregation at St. James.
St. James UMC in Fayetteville, Arkansas

What kind of difference might we be able to make in the life of one congregation if we were to all offer a gift in honor of the past and with great hope for the future?
To give to the Rev. Lewis V. and Mazie Chesser Memorial Fund for St. James United Methodist Church, visit http://www.methodistfoundationar.org/donate. (To complete the gift, click on "Give.") All gifts are tax deductible, and any gift would be greatly appreciated.

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Holston Conference includes 853 churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


dawn chesser photo.jpg
Dawn Chesser

The Rev. Dawn Chesser is pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Fountain City, Knoxville, Tennessee.