The Chattanooga Church will celebrate its 150th anniversary this weekend with a community event

Fielding Atchley Jr. was born in a church in 1948 that neither parent had raised. His father’s parents were instrumental in founding Red Bank Baptist Church and Red Bank Christ Church. His mother was a Methodist woman from Texas.

But, a year before Atchley was born, her parents landed at First Christian Church, a local Disciples of Christ congregation. Some 75 years later, Atchley is still a member.

“It’s a characteristic that this church has always had,” Atchley said. “It’s kind of a place where people from different faiths, from different kinds of theological perspectives, can find common ground and can be together here.”

On Sunday, generations of Chattanooga-area families will gather at First Christian Church on McCallie Avenue to celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary, placing the congregation among the oldest active houses of worship in the city.

The church will welcome Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ denomination, who will be the guest speaker for the Sunday service. Hord Owens became the first black woman to serve as general minister after her election in 2017.

Church members, some with generations-old ties to the congregation and others who have joined in recent years, told The Times Free Press they appreciate the church’s openness to dialogue, doubts and disagreements. The church is a place of understanding and community, they said.

As Atchley said, the church tends to attract people who are seekers and thinkers, pursuing that “elusive thing called truth.”

Lonna Williams, vice president of the church and member of the anniversary planning team, has searched past records in recent years, particularly old church minutes and bulletins. A member since 1983, Williams said she was inspired by the perseverance of members, especially in community service.

Early church members were instrumental in starting the Chattanooga Community Kitchen and serving orphans around the time the Chambliss Center was launched, Williams said.

Founded in November 1871, the first member of First Christian was Alice Kindrick, one of the few first members baptized in the Tennessee River near Ross’s Landing.

The early Christian congregation operated out of buildings on Walnut Street, Georgia Avenue, and Pine Street before moving to its current location on McCallie Avenue.

In many ways, the church and the denomination’s history has mirrored the history of the United States, said Reverend Brandon Gilvin, senior minister of First Christian.

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First anniversary of the Christian Church

The Disciples of Christ emerged as a denomination in the early 19th century as part of a movement for Christian unity, Gilvin said. The founding members of First Christian were on both sides of the Civil War, he said.

“Regardless of the design, we’ve always tried to be that kind of place of reconciliation,” Gilvin said.

(READ MORE: First Christian Church in Chattanooga becomes open and assertive congregation after years-long process)

Hord Owens said the Disciples of Christ is an American-only denomination, unlike other Protestant groups that were transplanted from Europe.

The emphasis is on the open table, which means there are no strict requirements to be involved in the service or to take communion. The denomination is not as hierarchical as other denominations, and in the 1960s followers were involved in anti-racism and pro-reconciliation work, she said.

Hord Owens said she was drawn to the Sankofa bird of African tradition, an image of a bird looking back but with its legs pointing forward.

The bird, she said, embodies “the idea that you learn from your history, you learn from your ancestors. And there are elements of tradition that you want to carry forward, both from a of the Christian tradition, as well as the tradition of the Disciples of Christ.”

Hord Owens said the First Christian Church has made a difference in his hometown.

“This congregation represents not only 150 years of simply being a congregation in Chattanooga, but 150 years of forming spiritual identities and informing individuals and families to serve this community,” she said. “It certainly had an imprint on Chattanooga. You can’t have an institution that’s been around that long and hasn’t had an impact.”

Gail Rich, a member of the anniversary planning team, said the celebration is an opportunity for the community to learn about First Christian, its history and where it travels. Rich is a third-generation member whose great-uncle helped finalize the deal to establish the church on McCallie Avenue.

“We want to invite the community,” Rich said. “Everyone is welcome. It’s not just for our small group to celebrate 150 years. We want Chattanooga to feel part of our celebration that we’ve been able to bring good news to the community for 150 years.”

The church will hold an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. There will be a morning church service, followed by a visual artist in the church’s memorial garden, wine and finger foods, live music and a new memorial garden dedication.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga-area church holds grand opening as another rises from the ashes on holy day)

The anniversary was originally scheduled for November 2021 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Ismael Sandoval, the church’s music director, said the Sunday service will include music paying homage to the church’s past. He spoke with longtime members about songs that were important to them as children, as well as past church programs to see what types of music were played in previous generations.

Sandoval is also composing a special piece for a string quartet, which will balance the sense of anniversary celebration with acknowledgment of the pain of deceased members.

Betty Jolly began attending First Christian in the mid-1950s, attracted by the church’s youth program for her three young daughters.

She served as president of the congregation and is now, at 93, the oldest member. She said she appreciates the church’s emphasis on welcoming others and learning about different cultures and religions, such as the programs she has participated in with other houses of worship in the area.

“It was wonderful,” Jolly said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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