First Christian Church celebrates 100th birthday

South Charlotte Weekly

Crystal O’Gorman/SCW photo

Crystal O’Gorman/SCW photo

First Christian Church, at the corner of East Boulevard and Dilworth Road East, will celebrate its centennial anniversary on Saturday and Sunday, May 30 and 31.

The church began with one man’s dream to bring a more unified denomination of Christianity, called Disciples of Christ, to the Charlotte area and has since touched the lives of generations of south Charlotte families.

Reverend Jolin Wilks McElroy pointed to a faded sepia-colored photograph of the church’s founding members.

“Francis Taylor was the lay leader who started our first church gatherings at the YMCA in downtown in 1915,” she said. “He also donated all his retirement money to build the first church with the exception that he live and take his meals at the church.”

The original church, built in 1925, is now the Christian Education building, which holds classrooms, a full-sized kitchen and fellowship hall in a two-story brick building attached to the rest of the church.

The church has evolved with time – hiring a female reverend in 2000 when it was still a rarity, starting Dilworth Soup Kitchen and accepting Montagnard refugees, a Vietnamese indigenous peoples, into its congregation.

McElroy said the church faced challenges filling the pews in the 1980s and 90s, as people moved out of Dilworth and into subdivisions outside of the city. Longtime church members told her the church was faced with the decision to push through or close down.

“Church members said, ‘We needed a place to be – others will want this,’ and they stuck with it,” McElroy said.

By the time she was hired, the church was primed to take charge and embrace change. In 2003, they hosted the General Assembly of the Christian Church of Disciples of Christ in North America and Canada that drew a crowd of 800 people to the church for services.

McElory also received a grant totaling almost $45,000 in 2004 for a sabbatical, which allowed church members to take retreats to the birthplace of Disciples of Christ in Bethany, Virginia, as well as the Craddock Center, a nonprofit serving the needs of people in the south, in Cherry Log, Georgia.

“I was married in this church and had my baby here,” she said.

What can only be explained as divine intervention in 2008 has shaped the church to what it is now.

McElroy said she struck up a conversation by fate with a neighborhood runner as he passed the church. Allen Saxe, a Jewish man, suggested the church start a soup kitchen for the homeless and offered to help make it happen. When the economy crashed and the church was looking for ways to reach out to the community, she decided to take Saxe up on his offer. The weekly soup kitchen, a nonprofit known as Dilworth Soup Kitchen, started serving soup and bread for Christmas Eve lunch in 2008 and has continued each year. The church serves soup, full meals and bread to more than 200 people every Monday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the fellowship hall, which used to be the sanctuary and was converted to a large kitchen and dining area decades before the soup kitchen came into fruition.

“We want to give people respect and make them feel welcome,” McElroy said. “They take a seat and we serve them on real plates and real silverware.

“We treat them like we would any guests in our home and they appreciate it.”

Another unexpected change chimed in by the church bells.

Luar Siu, the lay leader of a group of Montagnard refugees went out to scout for a church where his people could worship in October 2008. He was drawn to the church, because – even though he knew little English – he could read the word Christian on the church sign and heard the familiar tune of an old hymn being played by the church bells, said McElroy.

After being welcomed into the church with open arms, Siu brought more than 30 new members. Most didn’t speak English well, but they chose to attend the worship service in English versus having a separate service, which enriched the congregation.

“It’s amazing how God brought people from across the world to our church steps,” said McElroy.

She attributes the Montagnard’s arrival to the prayer team led by Julie Burch.

“The team, then and now, prays that our church will be a place where hurting people find God,” Burch, a south Charlotte resident, said. “None of us on the prayer team could have ever imagined that our church would become home to a group of people so very far away from their homeland, escaping the persecution of their Christian faith.”

The church has become well known as a place where everyone is accepted. They are open and inclusive to every theological and political belief and the church’s “essential message is unity and in all things, love,” said McElroy.

“When I moved to Charlotte, I had no family or friends here and the church became, in a way, a new home base,” said Burch, a 22-year church member. “What kept me coming back are the people and their warmth and caring.”

She also appreciates how the church is open and affirming to people from different social, economic and religious backgrounds, as well as different lifestyles. 

“When we gather around the Communion table each week, we gather as people who believe in Jesus Christ,” she said. “We might not necessarily agree on other matters, but we are one in that belief.”

First Christian Church will hold several activities in commemoration of the anniversary next weekend. Below is a list of the upcoming festivities:

Saturday, May 30

• Birthday party from 2 to 4 p.m. that includes face painting, a bounce house, balloons, popcorn and music.

• Hands to Work, Hearts to God at 3 p.m. in the fellowship hall, where adults and older children assemble hygiene kits for mission work.

• Hot Dog Supper from 5 to 6 p.m. in the fellowship hall – guests must RSVP by calling the church office at 704-334-3771.

• “Music Through the Decades” concert takes place from 7 to 8 p.m. in the sanctuary.

Sunday, May 31

• Worship service will start at 11 a.m. and includes special music and recognition of people who’ve contributed to the church over the years.

• 2015 Time Capsule and Reception will happen immediately after the service on the lawn with the reception to follow in the fellowship hall.

Visit http://www.fcc-charlotte.org for more information. First Christian Church is located at 1200 East Blvd.

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