ROCKY TOP, Tenn. (Aug. 30, 2016) -- Two years after changing its name to go along with town leaders, good ol’ Rocky Top United Methodist Church is still home sweet home to a bunch of dedicated members.
But the transition hasn’t been as sweet as soda pop, to quote an old song's lyrics. Some members wonder if changing the town name was a wild-as-mink mistake.
“I hate the name, but I love my church,” says Kaye Norris. “You could call it ‘Podunk United Methodist,’ and I would still love it.”
For anyone not living in Tennessee, “Rocky Top” is the name of a bluegrass standard that’s become something of a hymn for University of Tennessee sports fans. In fact, the hymn will be sung to high heaven when the Volunteer football team opens its season against Appalachian State on Sept. 1.
Hoping to capitalize on the song’s popularity with a proposed tourism plan, leaders of the town formerly known as Lake City officially changed its name to Rocky Top in June 2014. Two months later, the former Lake City United Methodist Church changed its name to Rocky Top United Methodist Church.
“We were one of the first businesses in the town to change,” said the Rev. Dave Henderson, Rocky Top UMC pastor. City leaders requested that all organizations drop the old Lake City title to hurry along the image makeover, he said.
More than two years later, residents are losing hope that the promised multimillion-dollar waterpark, theaters, hotels, and restaurants will materialize and provide desperately needed jobs and development.
“I write the checks for Rocky Top United Methodist Church, but I still say I’m from Lake City,” says Norris, church treasurer and a retired schoolteacher. “I think we bought a pig in a poke.”
“I don’t think we needed a new name,” said Bill Chesney, lay leader at Rocky Top UMC. “But once they changed the name of the town, we didn’t have much choice but to change the church, too.”
Henderson said that the congregation submitted new name possibilities before voting on it in summer 2014. “We also had money donated for a new church sign, so we waited until the decision was made before we got the new one.”
The vote wasn’t unanimous, but the majority of the congregation settled on renaming the church after its renamed hometown.
“There was no more Lake City. I guess people got to talking about it and decided to let it go,” says Marjorie Adkins. “We have the same zip code. It’s still our church.”
SEEING THE NEED
Rocky Top is located in both Anderson and Campbell Counties, 25 miles northwest of Knoxville, Tenn. The coal-mining town was founded in the early 19th century, taking the name “Coal Creek” from a stream. In 1936, planners gave Coal Creek its new name, Lake City, hoping to connect with tourists visiting the recently completed Norris Dam and its artificial lake.
Signs throughout the town still lay claim to Coal Creek as well as Lake City. Coal Creek Miners Museum on Main Street is a source of city pride. Some of the Rocky Top United Methodists spoke of great-great relatives who perished in the nearby Fraterville Mine disaster of 1902.
According to Adkins, the current building was established in 1951, but the church descends from a congregation started in 1873. Adkins joined the church as a 10-year-old in 1937, just one year after the town’s first name change.
“The town is sitting on a second name change and not a lot is going on,” says Henderson, Rocky Top pastor since 2011. “It hasn’t panned out for the town at all.”
In 2014, developers said that changing the name would bring tourists off Interstate 75 to visit the attractions they planned to build. Since then, Rocky Top has seen a few hopeful signs – including settlement of a lawsuit brought by the copyright-owners of the famous state song – but not anything yet significant to tackle the poverty that Henderson and his congregation encounter.
With a median income of less than $15,000 and a third of the 1,900 residents below the poverty line, Rocky Top United Methodist Church decided about a year ago to offer a food pantry and dinner on the last Sunday evening of every month.
Led by the United Methodist Women, the church also provides school supplies and shoes to children at Rocky Top Elementary.
“The more you give away, the more blessings you receive,” said Shirley Horton, while serving hot dogs, potato salad, and coleslaw to a big group on a recent Sunday night. “The church has grown, and it seems like we are more connected.”
The church has about 25 in average worship, says Henderson, and serves about 125 family members through the pantry. About 100 people drop in for the Sunday-night supper.
“I’ve seen this church actually live out what it preaches,” said Sandee Sharp Savarese, a newcomer who has already joined the church’s volunteer ranks. “That was very critical for me. That’s what brought me here.”
Tennessee town's rocky road to become Rocky Top (CNN, 5/4/14)
Tennessee town changes name in bid to attract tourists (AP, 6/16/14)
Lake City choir sings Easter cantata in Knoxville jail (The Call, 4/1/13)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.