WHITWELL, Tenn. – First United Methodist Church may have lost the building, but they never lost the vision of what their church could be.
Across the street from the Dairy Bar -- in a crowded, skinny property that used to be a flower shop -- First United Methodist Church of Whitwell is now a picture of victory. The parking lot is bumper to bumper with cars and trucks. A handful of church members, zipped up against the cold, scurry around with boxes of food, chatting with neighbors at their car windows.
“We held on, and now attendance is popping up real good,” says the Rev. Bill Stuart. “Man, they’re charged up now. God gives us the hands of service and for whatever reason, he has given us the hands of service in Whitwell.”
Until spring 2020, First United Methodist Church of Whitwell occupied a 15,000-square-foot building on five acres just a couple of miles away from where they are now. When the church relocated, worship attendance dropped to about five people.
Today, the church is rebounding in a smaller, rented space with about 20 in worship attendance and a growing ministry that feeds 200 or more families each month.
A United Methodist cross and flame hangs where the flower shop sign once hung. Church members explain that the “sanctuary,” with chairs full of food boxes and nowhere to stand without being in the way, transforms to a peaceful worship space on Sunday morning.
“We have come to know that it’s not the building, it’s the people that make the church,” says Pearl Campbell, a member who works in the food ministry. “We’re blessed to be here, and we’re blessed to serve. We get so much more than we give.”
The food ministry started with a “blessing box” about four years ago, when the congregation realized people in their town were going hungry, says church member B.J. Johnston. The need was so great, the blessing box was expanded from a single box to three boxes, stocked with canned foods so neighbors could help themselves (or help others) around the clock.
“We live in a low-income area,” Stuart said. “There are beautiful mountains and valleys and streams and a lot of wonderful, great people. But to be perfectly honest, there’s not a great deal of work.”
Located in the Sequatchie Valley, Whitwell is about 25 miles northwest of Chattanooga. In 2020, the population was 1,640, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ready to take a bigger “leap of faith” for the community, the church began the food pantry in 2019, Johnston said. Working with the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and local grocers, First United Methodist Church started giving out groceries to food-insecure families on the third Thursday of each month. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020, the food pantry was serving about 80 families each month.
However, a decrease in membership over several years had left behind a smaller congregation that could not financially support the building that was constructed in 2004. (“The utilities alone were $2,000 a month," Stuart said.) When the building was finally listed for sale, First United Methodist Church went looking for a new home.
“It wasn’t an easy transition,” says Johnston. “We lost a lot of stuff, lost a lot of members.”
The church members who stayed didn’t want to quit. Their plan was to use money from renting the parsonage to rent a space that could keep both the church and the food ministry alive.
“We wanted to be there for that need,” Johnston said. “We didn’t do it for accolades. We didn’t do it for anything but the mission God has called us to.”
When church members found the former flower shop, they found a way to make it work, even though it was about one-tenth the size of the congregation's previous home. Darrell Givens, who has since passed away, worked long hours to put up walls and transform the space into a church and food bank.
"We were used to a very large place, keeping everything in separate rooms,” says Campbell. “But Pastor Bill said, ‘I don’t need an office, we’ll use that area for the food bank.’ And we said, ‘We don’t need Sunday school rooms, we can just use all of this area for the food bank.’”
The townspeople seemed to have no trouble finding the new location of the food bank. In fact, the number of cars that start lining up at 6:30 a.m. on food-bank Thursdays increased, as did the volunteers who showed up to help. Some of the volunteers and food-box recipients have also shown up to worship on Sunday. The current location might be “more comfortable” for newcomers than the former, traditional church building, Johnston said.
“I always said we were a little country church in a great big box,” she said. “This building has given us a new presence, and we all feel it.”
The Rev. Mike King, who helped start the food pantry when he was pastor at First United Methodist Church, says he’s amazed at how the ministry has grown. “Every time I talk to them, I just tell them how proud I am of them. They’ve all bought into it now, and it just thrills my heart.”
King also commends his former congregation for not giving up, but for pivoting when change was necessary: “They would not be able to give out 200 boxes a month if they were having to pay the electricity and utility bills and insurance. There was good that came out of it.”
On the latest food-pantry day, Nov. 17, the flower-shop crew handed out 270 hefty boxes of packaged food, fresh vegetables, and frozen meat to families who were gearing up for the holidays. Oscar Campbell, the food bank’s director, says the holidays are always the busiest time, and he’s bracing for Thursday, Dec. 22.
“I’ve been there, I know how it feels,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling when you’ve got to worry where your next meal is coming from. It breaks my heart to see so many families that come through here, especially the little kids … That really just makes all this worth it.”
Sign up for a free weekly email subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Holston Conference's main offices are located in Alcoa, Tennessee.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.