Moving Forward 

The life cycle of a church building is over, but it leaves us lessons.


At least one thing unites every person of goodwill as we see the loss of the church property at Union and Cooper: It's a tragedy, a form of death many of us might associate with the loss of a loved one after a long battle with pain and disease. Some of us in ministry or in our own families have faced that terrible time when even extraordinary life-prolonging measures cannot reverse the tide. It is heartrending, to say the least.

Brave, dedicated members of Union Avenue United Methodist Church who merged with St. Luke's at Easter of last year feel like they have been through a tragedy twice. First, their agonizing prayer process and efforts to find a buyer resulted in recognition that the old building — to some a thing of beauty on the outside — was beyond repair on the inside. Years ago, the fact emerged that the real estate value of the property far outstripped the structure's appraised value.

Having no written and solid offers for purchase other than the CVS proposal, the church members entered into a sales contract in October 2009. They then prayerfully sought a sister congregation with whom to merge. This led to their union with St. Luke's. They were resolute in their determination not only to find a new "home" but to make a significant contribution to God's work in the world through the new partnership. Their deep grieving began to be tempered by visions of new life.

Meanwhile, a second round of grieving came upon them. The protracted contention with advocates of preservation began in January 2010 and raged on for 14 months, finally ending with court decisions against desperate lawsuits. It has been a different kind of suffering, but, to their credit, the former Union Avenue parishioners have been patient, hopeful, and above all unwilling to strike back at opponents of their decision.

In fact, they and St. Luke's as a whole are at work in specific ways to be community-minded and to seek reconciliation. Important items from the former church have been donated to others. These include a wonderful stained-glass window now at First United Methodist downtown, a pipe organ Memphis Theological Seminary will install in a new chapel, and wooden pews received by several local congregations and the chapel at Methodist University Hospital. The historic cornerstone, a Good Shepherd Chapel tablet, windows, balcony seats, and other smaller items are being preserved. Perhaps the best-known thing of all is being preserved and restored — the decorative cupola, visible for miles in Midtown all these years. Also, significant financial gifts are going to world and local missions such as First Works, which was housed at Union Avenue under Pastor French's leadership.

It has been both humbling and energizing for me personally to listen to sincere persons on "the other side" of this issue. Some good things are emerging from that. For instance, we are beginning a church history association that will help inform the public about the life histories of longtime congregations here in Shelby County. A Midtown nonprofit organization is helping to store some of the Union Avenue artifacts. I have met with the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian and offered our assistance in helping that newer congregation to find a permanent home, and I have favored and supported the "overlay" concept which began in our St. Luke's/University of Memphis neighborhood and then was adopted for Midtown last fall. Through many learning experiences in working with other churches, I feel a keen sense of "giving back" with regard to preservation.

There are many lessons to be learned by those of us who truly care about historic preservation. Among those are the need for early prioritizing of sites that can reasonably be saved, similar to endangered species. Another is establishing a strategic community fund, so there can be not only advocacy but also grants available to help responsible owners pursue preservation. Perhaps most of all, let's be in dialogue before things reach such a crisis point that the adversarial approach casts its pall on our beloved Memphis environment.

My wife and I have resided in Midtown for 32 of our 40 years in ministry. We are both history majors, and we have regrets, but we believe in learning and moving forward.

The Rev. Mark Matheny is pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church.

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