Chilhowie UMC

Chilhowie UMC

The story of how two congregations came together in one small town.

One black, one white.

One Methodist, one Baptist.


These folks aren’t strangers. Their children played high school football together. Some of them worked for the same companies. They’ve lived in the same town for decades, passed each other on the streets. Everybody knows everybody’s family and name.

But on Sunday morning in towns like Chilhowie, Va., black and white families worship separately. These two congregations aim to do something about that.

In August 2006, Chilhowie United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church of Chilhowie officially became “sister churches,” although they have casually joined for worship and other celebrations for many years.

During the August celebration, Swanson was so impressed by the Hallelujah Gospel Choir from the Baptist church, he made a request of the Rev. David St. Clair, pastor at Chilhowie UMC in Abingdon District.

“He said, ‘David, I want these two churches to bring a choir to Lake Junaluska and sing for the Sending Forth service,’” says St. Clair.

On June 13, the final day of Annual Conference, the two choirs will unite on the Stuart Auditorium stage. They began practicing together in March.

“They’re teaching us some of their songs, and we’re teaching them some of ours,” explained St. Clair. “We are voices united in praise of God, and that will be thrilling for us, as well I hope for those who are there.”

“They really sang well and I wanted to hear them again,” Swanson said, referring to the Hallelujah Gospel Choir. “But also, I was impressed with these two churches’ passion for demonstrating their oneness.

“I thought it would be a good witness for Holston Conference,” Swanson said. “They’re crossing over several barriers, not only denominational, but also racial.”

At a recent practice session – following worship and lunch together at Chilhowie UMC – the two choirs assembled easily into one. They laughed at the differences in singing styles between white United Methodists and black Baptists. But together, they worked out their parts to “How Majestic is Thy Name.” By the end of the session, their laughter and music seemed to fill up the fellowship hall, spilling out the windows and doors.

During worship, the Rev. Dwayne Mabry of First Baptist had preached to the joined congregations about “going against the grain.” He referred not only to segregation during the worship hour, but also denying health care and other services to illegal aliens.

“This seems to be a chance for the church to go across the grain of traditional thinking,” he said to a crowd of 112. “Evil prospers when good people do nothing.”

Later, the 32-year-old pastor, who sings in the choir with his wife Clara, spoke of how the new congregational sisterhood will be carried out.

“It’s not just about worship, but worship is a good place to start,” Mabry said.

The two pastors are also considering joint Bible studies, youth events, and Vacation Bible School. Meanwhile, St. Clair anticipates further discussion about Methodist and Baptist beliefs and experiences among whites and blacks: “How do they differ, what do they have in common, and what can we learn from each other?”

Located within two miles of each other, the congregations are being intentional about extending a community relationship that has existed for years.