SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (Sept. 19, 2016) -- Cars honked. Phones tweeted. Flags waved.
On a 95-degree afternoon in Sevierville, about 70 members of a United Methodist congregation marched 2.8 miles from their former building to their new home. They were noticed.
“Hey, who is that?” one man asked from the passenger seat of an old van that slowed down along Veterans Boulevard.
On Sept. 7, the congregation Ministerio del Espiritu Santo officially moved from their six-year home at First United Methodist Church to the modern behemoth on the hill now known as “The Connexion.”
Led by the husband-and-wife team of Susana and Wilmer Lopez, the Spanish-speaking congregation followed their parade with a celebratory worship service attended by 269.
“Our dreams are not as big as God’s dreams,” said the Rev. Susana Lopez during opening worship. “God’s been pushing us because he’s got great things for us.”
“My heart is happy,” Bishop Taylor said in Spanish to beaming worshippers. (“Mi corazón está feliz.”) “We do want this to be a place where God is glorified, and clearly, God is glorified this day.”
In the week after Espiritu Santo moved to the new building, 25 total newcomers attended worship services, and several returned for additional visits, Lopez said. Many heard about or saw the Wednesday-afternoon march through Sevierville.
“That impacted a lot of people. We were out evangelizing for a couple of hours, and people said, ‘Oh, is this the church that moved?’” Lopez said. “My daughter came home from school and said, ‘Everyone is tweeting about the parade – all the Hispanics walking down Veterans Boulevard.’”
The relocation of Espiritu Santo followed three years of prayer as the congregation quickly outgrew the chapel across the street from First Sevierville UMC’s main building, Lopez said. (El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo means “Ministry of the Holy Spirit.”)
The congregation started at First United Methodist Church in August 2010 with 18 people, swelling to 100 within three years. About 150 people currently attend the Wednesday evening service. About 100 attend each of Espiritu Santo’s Saturday and Sunday evening services.
“The congregation had outgrown their facilities. We felt that we were losing prospects because we were too crowded,” said the Rev. Charles Maynard, Maryville District superintendent.
Earlier this year, Rusty Taylor offered The Connexion at 1250 Middle Creek to the Espiritu Santo congregation as a place to expand their ministry. Using congregational development funds, Holston Conference is in the midst of a two-year lease of the building which expires in February 2018.
“We have this facility available to us,” Taylor said. “Part of my feeling is that we need to help them grow that church into what it can be.”
Lopez said she initially hesistated to relocate. “Half of our our congregation is kids and youth,” she said. “It takes a lot to maintain a building with that many kids. I didn’t know if we were capable of taking that step to such a big building and such a nice building.”
“We were dreaming of something bigger, but at the same time, we were afraid of the ‘bigger,’” Lopez said. “We were all looking for an excuse to stay in a space that was already familiar to us.”.
After prayer and a dream about the Israelites and the “promised land” in the Bible’s Old Testament, Lopez said she knew it was “God’s timing” to move forward.
“I don’t know if this is our ‘promised land,’” Lopez said. “While we get to the promised land, we will take advantage of every place that God puts before us.”
The Connexion, formerly known as The Gathering, was built by a local nondenominational congregation in 2008 and abandoned in 2013. Holston Conference has the option to buy the property, located near Dollywood Theme Park, when the two-year, $300,0000 lease agreement expires in 2018.
“We are viewing this as a bridge moment to get us to the next place,” Maynard said of the Espiritu Santo congregation. “This gives us more space for new possibilities. We are going to keep looking for other places and possibilities in case this location does not work out.”
A “letter of understanding” between the Espiritu Santo congregation and the Holston Annual Conference says the congregation wil help clean the building and contribute to utilities and maintenance costs.
“The congregation will be able to worship in the main auditorium of The Connexion on Wednesday evening, Saturday evening, and Sunday evening, except on those occasions when the Annual Conference will need it for an Annual Conference sponsored activity,” according to the document provided by Rusty Taylor. “At those times the congregation will be able to use one of the large downstairs rooms except for those times when the whole building will need to be available. Although such occasions will be rare, there could be times when the entire building will need to be used by the AC."
Since the lease agreement was signed in February, the building has been largely unused. A Saturday-evening worship service targeting tourists was suspended in July, due to low attendance, after a seven-week trial.
“We may develop something on Sunday, but obviously Saturday does not work there as a ‘Vacation Church,’” Rusty Taylor said.
Future events scheduled at The Connexion include Sermon Academy on Oct. 24. Rez Kidz in January, and Clergy Gathering in February. A worship and audio-visual-lighting conference in September was canceled due to low registrations.
“It’s something people are going to have to embrace and believe it’s a viable ministry for the Annual Conference, or decide it’s not something they’re going to do,” Rusty Taylor said of The Connexion’s future.
The “letter of understanding” states that “if in the future the Annual Conference no longer has use of The Connexion, the Annual Conference will do everything possible to assist the [Espiritu Santo] congregation in finding a place to worship and conduct the activities of the local church.”
On Sept. 1, Susana Lopez was officially appointed as a full-time licensed local pastor, allowing her to resign her full-time job at Home Depot after six years as a bi-vocational pastor. Her salary will be paid through the congregation’s offerings along with funding from the Maryville District, Holston Hispanic Ministry, and Holston Congregational Development Ministry. Lopez will be assisted by her husband, Wilmer Lopez.
'Vacation Church' launches May 28 at Sevierville facility (The Call, 6/1/16)
Lease signed for Sevierville facility with goal of reaching millions (The Call, 2.11.16)
Husband-and-wife team leads fast-growing Hispanic congregation (The Call, 4/13/13)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.