The Heights

Faith in Action: Sharing space to save historic churches

High Ground’s Faith in Action series explores faith-based groups from congregations to nonprofits making deep and innovative investments in our On the Ground neighborhoods. Beyond charity and acts of goodwill, the series spotlights organizations that walk alongside residents and other neighborhood stakeholders to address unique and underserved needs.


Grimes United Methodist Church hosted its last service in Berclair on June 9, 2019. Its building is now an empty dirt lot waiting to be developed into retail space. In 2011, CVS Pharmacy demolished the 90-year-old Union Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church. A few blocks away, only the exterior wall of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church remains. Behind it sits a Chic-fil-A.

When congregations shrink and age, they have fewer financial resources and less manpower, which makes it difficult to maintain the buildings. Often, they're forced to sell. Neighborhoods then face the dual loss of historic buildings and the congregants’ investment in the community.

“It’s not just tearing down a building, it’s very much tearing down a piece of the story that people can identify with,” said Christina Crutchfield, Heights CDC community engagement coordinator.

In The Heights, the congregation of Highland Heights Baptist Church has shrunk to less than 30 members, but they've found a way to stay rooted in the neighborhood and save the building.

They chose to share the space.

“We saw it as a godsend ... God was blessing them to come in [and] blessing us to not to have the burden of dealing financially with the building," said longtime congregant Linda Burgess.

The Collegiate School of Memphis now owns the building while HHBC and The Avenue Community Church hold services and all three organizations work to serve their community. 

“The more we can connect and work together for the better of the neighborhood and the better of Memphis ... the more successful we can all be in our missions of our different organizations,” said Tyler Warren, Collegiate's dean of finance and operations.

Congregants of the Highland Heights Baptist Church and The Avenue Community Church join together for a Thanksgiving dinner and service. Both groups share space in their historic church. (Heights CDC)
 

The Rise and Decline of Highland Heights Baptist

Sharing space isn't new to HHBC.

The church was founded in 1913 and purchased the property at 675 National Street in 1944. But in 1911, the congregation that would become HHBC shared another Heights location and nondenominational Sunday school service with Highland Heights Methodist Church.

In 1944, its new National Street building was situated directly on the Raleigh Streetcar line in the heart of Highland Heights. It sits on 13, 2275 square-feet of land with its two-story buildings filling two-thirds of that space.The sanctuary displays traditional gothic architecture and the educational building, added in the 1960s, is Art Deco.

Related: "Rising to new Heights: The history and current climb of Memphis' streetcar suburb"

Over time, HHBC saw a decline in membership. Burgess has been a HHBC member for 15 years and Heights resident since 1973. She said her church now has around 25 active members and around a third of them are senior citizens.

As the congregation was considering the fate of their too-big building, a group of passionate educators and philanthropists were planning to open a private, Christian, college preparatory school for middle and high school students.

Larry Ray Reed, Dean of Finance and Operations at Collegiate School of Memphis from 2010 to 2016, said its founders specifically prioritized repurposing an existing building.

In February 2008, Collegiate purchased and renovated HHBC with the agreement that the church and school would share the space. That year, Collegiate started with the seventh grade, adding an upper grade each year and 6th grade in 2010.

In September 2018, Collegiate and HHBC welcomed a third organization to the building, the Christian but nondenominational The Avenue Community Church.

“We knew we wanted to be on Summer Avenue, that was very important to us. [Collegiate] made the most welcoming situation for us to be able to start,” said lead pastor Tim Johnson.
 

SERVING THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Heights CDC is a nonprofit community development corporation working to improve economics, housing, green spaces, and community identity in The Heights.

Crutchfield said the three organizations support Height CDC's work in the neighborhood and contribute in other ways. 

“Collegiate is a great partner with the neighborhood because instead of just existing ... they actually go out into the neighborhood and do service projects," said Crutchfield. "They even helped out Treadwell, which is another school."

Collegiate students and staff have partnered with Heights CDC on a variety of tasks including planting gardens, cleaning out an old woodshop, and collecting community data.

Collegiate high school students also participate in the Kempie Jenkins Faith in Action program. The program requires them to complete service hours in addition to school-wide annual days of service.

HHBC and The Avenue CC similarly prioritize serving the neighborhood.

“Our goal is just to be here and be on the ground and just be in the community,” said Johnson.

“A lot of the people who go to The Avenue Church work in the neighborhood, work in different local non-profits. They’re teachers at Treadwell or Kingsbury or work at [Memphis Athletic Ministries] or STREETS [Ministries], so they’re all very invested,” said Crutchfield.

“Highland Heights Baptist Church has been around for a really long time, and even though they’re small they still try to do things. They have a Christmas program every year. [Burgess] still does backyard Bible club every summer," said Crutchfield.

Collegiate’s investment in the historic church structure also adds value into the Heights.

“In 2006 or 2007, if you would have driven by those buildings, they were either vacant or largely unused by the church and minimally, if at all, maintained," said Reed. "Now they have lots of life."
 

Serving Each Other

All three entities—Collegiate, HHBC, and The Avenue—are also committed to each other.

“[HHBC] didn’t want just anybody, and they became really excited about Collegiate as a ministry of their church," said Reed.

For years, Collegiate students have assisted the aging HHBC congregation with decorating the sanctuary at Christmas time. Collegiate students and staff also attended HHBC’s 100-year anniversary celebration.

“[Collegiate has] been really flexible allowing us to use space even outside of Sunday morning. We saw Collegiate students get involved with one of our summer programs," said Blake Lam, The Avenue's director of ministry operations.

HHBC and The Avenue shared their first Thanksgiving meal together in 2019.

“We got two separate worship services but we’re rooting for each other, we’re really pulling [for them],” said Johnson.
 

THE COLLEGIATE ADVANTAGE

Collegiate chose The Heights to help improve its educational opportunities.

Collegiate School of Memphis displays portraits of alumni who have graduated college on its "Mission Accomplished" wall. CMS is located in one of The Heights' oldest churches. (Leigh Tatum) Currently, 39% of Collegiate students are residents of The Heights, though the school serves students from 25 ZIP codes in and around Memphis.

Kingsbury and Douglass are the area's only public high schools.

In 2019, their graduation rates were 70.8% and 83.9% respectively. Their ACT scores, which are a major factor in college admissions and scholarships, averaged 15.8 and 15.3 respectively.

In comparison, Collegiate has had a 100% graduation rate and 100% college acceptance rate for every student from 2014-2019. In 2019, its average ACT score was 23.8.

During the 2018-19 school year, all graduating students received a scholarship offer. A total of $3,465, 850 scholarship dollars were awarded to Collegiate students.
 
“I do believe Collegiate is bringing a real high academic rigor that’s helping to close achievement gaps for students that may have been underserved in schools that they came from," said Reed. "And it is a really unique school culture that I do think provides a real joy in learning."


Author Leigh Tatum is a High Ground News Community Correspondent.. Correspondents complete a six-week training and mentorship program to become freelance, neighborhood-based reporters. Correspondents live in underserved communities and hope to correct negative neighborhood narratives by diving into the nuances underlying big challenges and highlighting successful solutions. This is Tatum's first published story with High Ground News.

Read more articles by Leigh Tatum.

Leigh Tatum grew up in the Memphis area and has called The Heights home for six year after stints in Ethiopia and East TN. Leigh works as a Behavioral Health Consultant in integrated primary care and has a Master’s of Science in Social Work from the University of Tennessee. Leigh enjoys all things outdoors, exploring, open-ended questions, and her dog, Sam. Tatum is a graduate of the first High Ground News Community Corespondents program, a training course to turn average Memphians from under-served communities into neighborhood reporters who can create expert narratives from within.
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