Klondike Smokey City

As Klondike Smokey City shrinks, churches remain constant

In a declining neighborhood with high population turnover, churches aspire to be anchors in Klondike Smokey City.

When Robert Jones steps out the front door of his Klondike church, what he sees beyond the trees across Bellevue Boulevard is a giant wall. The massive wall separates Interstate 40 from the North Memphis streets below.

Jones is the minister of Keel Avenue Baptist Church, a position he’s held since 1994. He recalls those early days when people speeding by on I-40 could look down and see his church. But then the interstate realignment in the early 2000s brought the wall and hid his church from view of the expressway.

That physical wall, in some ways, also serves as a metaphor for the obstacles faced in the North Memphis neighborhoods of Klondike and Smokey City.

“That’s been a big change,” Jones said. “All of a sudden when they did what they did to the expressway and put that wall up, you can’t see us. The church and the community, we’re hidden in a sense.”

Sunday service at Pillar of Jerusalem church in Smokey City.

There are some 30 entities that identify as churches in the roughly one square mile area that makes up the Klondike Smokey City community. Some of those are tiny buildings and basically small home-based congregations representing numerous denominations. Some are historic while others are just getting off the ground.

As the neighborhood’s population has declined over the past couple of decades, church membership has changed. Membership numbers have dropped at some congregations, while others now see fewer members who actually call the neighborhood home.

Colley Cooper is the pastor of the newest church in the area, Hope City. The church plant of Hope Presbyterian meets on Sundays at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School on Chelsea Avenue in Smokey City. He understands that it might seem odd to add another church to the mix in North Memphis where he estimates there are more than 50 congregations.

“I reached out to pastors to say that we want to share the mission field,” he said. “We’re not here to be in competition. We just want to be more pedestrian and see where we can meet the needs in the community.”

"This area is an under-resourced area with a high dropout rate among high school students, a high crime rate and high poverty rate. Work is needed to be done. We want to be a church without walls.”

Hope City is focused on connecting to the greater North Memphis community where fewer people attend church than a generation ago, Cooper said.

“You have millennials and some Gen-Xers that religion and church isn’t their thing,” he said. “The vision of this church is to reach the unchurched in 38107. And so we knew we had to build relationships. That’s what it’s about.”

Hope City is starting from scratch. It sees between 50 and 70 people attend noon services on Sundays. Other congregations have been there through the years as the community has changed – and experienced a declining population.

In fact, U.S. Census data show the population of Klondike Smokey City was 4,765 in 2014. Population has dramatically split over the years. In 2000, nearly 7,500 people lived in Klondike Smokey City. In 1970, 14,800 people lived in the area. And in 1960, over 16,000 people called Klondike Smokey City home.

Pastor Colley Cooper (reflected in the television screen with his sermon) preaches during Sunday service at Hope City Church in Caldwell-Guthrie's cafeteria in Smokey City.

Much of that population decline is attributed to the closing of various employers in North Memphis, including the massive Firestone plant in nearby New Chicago in the early 1980s. Facing generational and geographical upheavals, churches in Klondike Smokey City are trying hard to hold on to the community.

The Rev. O.C. Collins has led Smokey City’s Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church since 1985. He sees the problems of poverty first hand in the community.

“It’s historic,” he said. “When Firestone was open and they had nice factories and jobs were out here people could walk to jobs or take a short bus ride. At one point this community was thriving.

After all that closed up there was nothing to fill the gap because this community – as well as other communities in Memphis – found themselves after those jobs left with nothing to fill the gap. Those jobs aren’t coming back and that’s a reality we’re dealing with.”

A number of Bethlehem’s members drive in from other Memphis neighborhoods.  

Keel Avenue Baptist Church also has fewer members from the neighborhood than it once did. Jones said he’s actually been approached to consider moving the church out of the community. He believes that the neighborhood has too much opportunity to seriously consider a relocation.

(L) Verdel Bradford places his hand on his wife's back during prayer at Pillars of Jerusalem church in Smokey City. (Ri) Taryanna White, 16, goofs around with Mento Cannon, 5, in the corner of Pillar of Jerusalem church in Smokey City.

“I have a heart for the community,” he said. “I want to do something to make it better. It’s really difficult to do things to make it better but you do what you can with what you have. In the 20-plus years I’ve been here it’s given me more of a desire and motivation to be a positive light in the community.”

Bethlehem Missionary Baptist has existed in Smokey City since its founding in 1883. It built a new church building in 1994 at the corner of Looney Avenue and Ayers Street. The church needed new space, and the congregation decided to stay to minister to the community.

“The needs of the community are evident,” Collins said. “You can drive through here and see the effects of poverty. It’s no secret North Memphis is a very poor area. It was our thinking that even when we tore the old building down we didn’t want to abandon the community after seeing our growth. We felt we were a community church.”

A prayer circle forms around the children at the Pillar of Jerusalem church in Smokey City.

What does community involvement for the churches look like? Every congregation is different, but it starts with letting the neighborhood know the church is there for it.

At Keel Avenue Baptist Church, the focus is on the Klondike community. The congregation is known for its community festival with food, games and clothing giveaways.

“This community needs some kind of motivation to help them see life is more than what they see up close,” Collins said. “Things can be better. They need help in getting jobs. They need help in developing some kind of skill, something to get them off the corner and off the street.”

Jerry Darling sings during Sunday service at Pillar of Jerusalem church in Smokey City.

Collins cautions that congregations can get overwhelmed with the abundant needs, especially in a community where many of its residents struggle in poverty.

“I think a lot of times churches try to take on too much but then again they take on what they believe they can handle,” he said. “There is so much that needs to be done. I don’t frown on any of it. All of us can chip in and try to do the best we can.”

Bethlehem Missionary Baptist is involved with local schools including Gordon Elementary. Its tutoring work first started at Northside High School, which closed last year.

As Cooper works to expand Hope City’s ministry in the neighborhood, he said it’s all about building relationships in the community.

“It’s bigger than just come to church on Sundays. It’s building relationships and see what their needs are and see where we can plug in," Cooper said.

"This area is an under-resourced area with a high dropout rate among high school students, a high crime rate and high poverty rate. Work is needed to be done. We want to be a church without walls.”

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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.