The East Knoxville church is the site for vital community missions and may be ready to reopen on a limited basis as early as next week, said the Rev. Ann Robins, Tennessee Valley District superintendent in the Holston Conference.
“I can’t be more appreciative of the city and how gracious they have been in working with us,” Robins said.
The building was abruptly closed by the city late last month, said the Rev. Scott Montgomery, Magnolia Avenue pastor. He first saw the “no trespassing” signs on the building as he arrived for Sunday worship on Feb. 25.
“While the immediate response was that of surprise, many of us expected something of this nature to eventually happen to the building,” Montgomery said. “Nevertheless ... I did feel saddened in knowing what this meant for the ministries within and the people we serve.”
Magnolia Avenue UMC houses a free medical clinic every Monday serving 45 to 60 patients, in addition to a Monday meal ministry serving 100 or more. “Most recipients have built a routine trust in knowing we will be there to help them,” Montgomery said.
While volunteer doctors and nurses met with clinic patients under a tent on church property earlier this week, Robins spent the week meeting with building inspectors and fire marshals.
Church leaders are now working to replace and upgrade smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, which after the fire marshal’s approval, may allow parts of the church to reopen in a few days, Robins said.
To keep the church open, Holston Conference must repair the education building’s leaking roof within 120 days. By fall 2021, city officials require the repair or replacement of a boiler that no longer works to heat the building, Robins said.
“There are certainly many things that can be done in the building to make it better, but these things need to be done to make it safe,” Robins said.
With these improvements, the first and second floor of the education building can stay open to house the clinic, food and clothing ministries, and worship services.
The main sanctuary building and the education wing’s third floor remain uninhabitable for the time being, Robins said. “The city requires ‘do not enter’ signs and for those areas to be locked off because of disrepair.”
The Rev. Rusty Taylor said he is following up on $19,000 spent by Holston Conference in spring 2019 to repair the leaking roof over the education building and to get projections for other repairs.
"I talked to the roofing company last week, and they are going to give me a price to fix the current roof problems,” said Taylor, Holston Conference director of congregational development and revitalization. “I am also working with a contractor to assess what we need to do. I was not aware of any roof leak issues until the city shut the building down.”
Built in 1926 and once home to a large congregation with 750 in average worship attendance, the red brick, Gothic-style church has declined for decades. In 2019, the East Knoxville church was the subject of news stories that stirred United Methodist interest in revitalizing the church and its ministries.
Several local churches have stepped up to join in Magnolia Avenue’s ministry, Robins said. Ebenezer United Methodist Church organizes a monthly food pantry. Andersonville United Methodist Church gives $200 each month to support the meal ministry. Concord United Methodist Church, Mt. Hermon United Methodist Church, and others are currently considering how to help, she said.
“My hope and prayer is that, as people of faith, we could utilize these challenges to serve the community more effectively,” Robins said.
As the cost for repairing or replacing the building rises along with the needs of the community, Montgomery said he is concerned for the church’s future.
“If the church is closed temporarily and the ministries find other places to serve, I fear there would not be a desire or need to repair the church building,” he said.
Before the pandemic, about 30 worshipped in Magnolia Avenue’s large sanctuary. In recent months, worship attendance has been fewer than 10. Now that the sanctuary is closed, worshippers will meet in a large classroom where they can still practice social distancing, Montgomery said.
A web page allowing donors to designate their gifts for Magnolia Avenue community ministries or for a capital campaign is under development. In the meantime, Holston Conference leaders ask donors to give online to Magnolia Avenue UMC, located in the Tennessee Valley District, at this link.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.