Forrest Avenue church closes, searches for new home

Forrest Avenue church closes, searches for new home

An inner-city ministry that won the trust of the homeless and unchurched in Chattanooga is searching for a new home.

The Rev. Barry Kidwell described the situation when he stepped up to the microphone at Annual Conference and said, “We are now a homeless homeless ministry. We have nowhere to go.”

Kidwell, pastor at Forrest Avenue United Methodist Church, and other church leaders are hurriedly seeking a new location in a downtown building or at the former East Lake UMC. The goal is to sell Forrest Avenue’s building to help fund the homeless ministry that now feeds and provides other services to about 500 people each week, according to Chattanooga District Superintendent Fred Dearing.

“My hope is that we can endow the funds from the sale of the property so the homeless and poor who have been invisible will continue to be cared for,” the Rev. Dearing said. “We want them to know God loves them and hasn’t abandoned them, because the church hasn’t.”

“They’re worried,” said Kidwell, referring to the people who look forward to breakfast and worship at the church on Sundays, hot meals and hugs at a city park on Thursdays.

“But I keep telling them, ‘We’re not going away. Something’s going to work out,’” says Kidwell, Forrest Avenue pastor since 2004. “’We’ll do what it takes to get a place where you can keep coming to find the relationship with Jesus Christ you’ve always wanted.’”

Status change

The 130-year-old Forrest Avenue church was closed and designated a “mission congregation” June 14 at Annual Conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C. An emotional de-consecration service followed June 26 at the Chattanooga church.

Forrest Avenue members requested a “mission” status when the 20 active members could no longer meet financial demands of the homeless ministry, aging building, clergy salary, and apportionments, Dearing said. The “mission congregation” label opens the door for the ministry to receive about $93,000 annually in pastoral and other support from the district and conference.

However, Forrest Avenue UMC has already received some conference and district support in years past, Dearing said.

“There’s not enough money to pour into the building and ministry to keep sustaining it,” he said. “The only way to sustain it is to endow it, and the only way to endow it is to sell the property.”

After the building profits are endowed through the Holston Conference Foundation, 70 percent of the interest will support the Forrest Avenue ministry, Dearing said. The remaining 30 percent will support other urban ministries in Holston Conference. “The Book of Discipline places restrictions on how the money can be used,” he said.

Churches and other groups continue to support the homeless ministry with meals, volunteers, and other resources, Dearing said.

“People have stepped up with a wonderful outpouring of Christ,” he said. “It speaks well of our community.”

Relocation sites

In addition to Sunday worship (about 60 in attendance) and Thursday meals in the streets (about 300-400 served), Forrest Avenue has also offered Wednesday night supper and Bible study, a prison ministry, and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups.

Needy people also come to Forrest Avenue for help in obtaining medicine, housing, transportation, recovery, and even a hand in chopping wood.

Forrest Avenue’s outreach was included in the “State of the Church” video presented to the Annual Conference in June along with other powerful Holston ministries. 

About $100,000 from donations and the parsonage sale was invested in renovating the Forrest Avenue building over the last three years, Kidwell said. The ministry will continue to operate in the building until it sells.

Potential buyers have already indicated interest in the property, Dearing said. The building is located within short walking distance of new restaurants and shops.

Kidwell said he has already found new locations for the substance-abuse groups and prison ministries. He has also approached city leaders about relocating the Forrest Avenue ministry to a building near the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, a social service agency.

Other sites with United Methodist ties are being considered but may not be possible or practical, Kidwell said. The former East Lake UMC, which also closed in June, needs renovations and is seven miles away from the Forrest Avenue site.

“The reality is we have to have a place,” Dearing said. “East Lake could be made ready with funds from the sell of the property, but it’s not going to be convenient [for the homeless] to get there.”

Both Dearing and Kidwell said they are determined to uphold the ministry that has served so many. In addition to reintroducing Jesus to a community rejected and hurt by others, the outreach has spawned two new ministries, Kidwell said. A former prostitute and drug abuser is training to become a lay speaker, and a former homeless person is training to become a certified lay minister.

“We try to build relationships, not treat people as if they’re part of an institution,” Kidwell said. “We are going to do all we can not to let these people down but to be extensions of God’s love.”


  • See also: "Hungry in Chattanooga," The Call, Feb. 2008 (PDF file)
  • See also: "Two Local Churches Hold Final Services," (6-28-10)