By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—Catastrophic flood devastation turned out to be a blessing in disguise for two United Methodist churches, teaching them lessons about Christian hospitality, flexibility—and what it really means to “love thy neighbor.”
Historic Wesley UMC, on Gervais Street, was a beautiful old church with a thriving congregation. But when rains swamped the Midlands in October 2015, caving in the 111-year-old church’s ceiling, the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin and her flock were suddenly without a place to worship. They tried to cram into their education building for worship, but it didn’t work.
“We were busting out the seams,” Knowlin said. “I was afraid the momentum of the church was going to diminish.”
Nearby Main Street UMC heard about Wesley’s challenges, and their pastor, the Rev. Robert Walker, offered Wesley use of their chapel as long as they needed it.
It was an answered prayer, and one that came out of nowhere, Knowlin said.
“Main Street wasn’t on our radar—I didn’t even know they had a chapel!”
But while the solution seemed a simple one on the surface, it involved far more orchestration, coordination and tolerance than any of them realized. Main Street, a predominantly Caucasian church, and Wesley, a predominantly African-American church, each have two different worship styles and vast layers of programming. They both have thriving children’s ministries, Christian education opportunities and mission activities. And now they were all packed into one building together, forced to accommodate each other’s traditions, routines and space, all while serving the Lord.
Not just that, but almost immediately, Wesley realized the chapel was far too small for their needs. With an average of about 110 in worship each Sunday, the chapel accommodates just 100 comfortably.
But Main Street dug its heels in, determined to exhibit true hospitality, and Walker stepped up his offer: instead of the chapel, Wesley could share space in Main Street’s large sanctuary.
Of course, that meant even more flexibility. Wesley worshipped at 10 a.m., but Main Street worships at 11, and an hour wasn’t nearly enough time. Wesley had to change their service time to 9 a.m., which wasn’t an easy shift. On top of that, Main Street had its own challenges; they were in the midst of a sanctuary renovation.
But inspired by their example in Christ Jesus, and spurred on by their unity in the UMC connection, together they made it work. After more than two years of sharing space, Wesley and Main Street say they are now like one big family.
“We’re not going to let them go!” teased Lucy Lewis, of Main Street. “I love them.”
“It has been a growth experience for all of us, but now it’s like they’re our whole other family,” said Susan Gallant Stubbs, also of Main Street.
The Rev. Otis Scott, who worships at Wesley, said Main Street has truly taught him the real meaning of generosity.
“You hear those terms tossed around, but it’s rare when you see it,” Scott said. “Let’s face it, they had to make some concessions. It was not so smooth and easy for them, but that was never shown to us. They were just generous, gracious, always greeting us with a smile and a ‘you’re welcome.’
“I only hope and pray Wesley learned from that.”
Knowlin said Main Street has shown Wesley love and welcome since the beginning, with one intensely meaningful example being that when Main Street finally completed its sanctuary renovations, they allowed Wesley to use their space even before they did.
“This was an example of how to be the church, what it means to be hospitable,” Knowlin said. “We had a lot of angst about that, but Robert said, ‘Tiffany, this is the Lord’s house. We can’t say you can’t go in first because we worship at 11 and you worship at 9. Jesus said the first would be last and the last would be first.’”
The churches haven’t stopped at polite, generous tolerance. They have also intentionally sought joint fellowship opportunities, including occasional joint worship services, meals, combined children’s Sunday school classes and more. At Easter, Wesley hosted a dual-church egg hunt for the children of both churches.
Mickey Gates, a member of Wesley since he was 4 years old, said the relationships between the two congregations have blossomed.
“We had mumbles and grumbles at first, but over time, everybody just kind of gelled,” Gates said. “Everyone was working together to move things around.”
Scott credited strong leadership, both clergy and lay, with their successful blending.
“I think the lessons to be learned is life is messy and not perfect, but with good leadership, it can work,” Scott said. “Give it time. We can work through those problems and accomplish things. There were grumblings at Wesley, too, but good leadership made that go away.”
Knowlin agreed. “We’ve all got to be flexible. I’m not saying this is utopia; life is hard. But we’re learning to adjust.”
Case in point: On a recent Sunday, Wesley’s service ran over because Knowlin preached too long, so she got on the microphone after worship and acknowledged it was “her fault” and encouraged Wesley members to hurry their transition so Main Street could come in a start their service preparations.
“When you share space, you’ve got to do things differently,” Knowlin said. “There’s a lot of give and take.”
Work is almost finished on Wesley’s building. In six months, they were able to raise $420,000 to put in a new ceiling, new roof and new unisex bathroom upstairs, and their goal is to move back in by September.
But they’ll be leaving with a new extended family in Main Street—and a new example of God’s glorious hospitality and grace courtesy of the United Methodist connection.