Editor's Note: On September 29, CTC gathered with 100 of our neighbors, friends, and supporters for a celebration of the 10th anniversary of The Commons on Merton - a multitenant nonprofit office and community center in Binghampton. During the celebration, Billy Vaughan - a Binghampton neighbor, pastor, and one of CTC's founding board members - shared the story of The Commons. In this post, we've included Billy's remarks along with a gallery of some of our favorite photos from the event. All photo credits to Katie Barber Photography.
I’m sure most of you know that this building used to belong to Everett Memorial United Methodist Church. It was originally a neighborhood church – almost entirely white working class folks. My father actually served Everett as pastor from 1959-1961. I went to the 1st and 2nd grade right down the block at the Old Lawler Elementary school where Binghamton Park is now.
Everett Memorial tried to maintain that white working-class identity way beyond the years when this was a white working-class neighborhood. You all know the story. It’s the common story of white churches in this city. Everett hung on until they realized that they would likely die if they didn’t make some changes. And honestly, even with the efforts of some fine pastors – some of whom are here tonight – the truth is that by that time it really was too late.
In one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Memphis this church was known as a white church. And to tell the truth, it was a little hard to break that identity when right up in front of the sanctuary, behind where there used to be a pulpit and choir loft, we had this giant ascension picture of the whitest Jesus you’ve ever seen standing in the clouds looking like he was surf boarding in heaven. I’ll confess – under my breath I sometimes referred to that picture as “California Dreamin' Jesus.”
Well, you get the point. Everett just couldn’t quite let go of a white identity. So Everett got smaller and smaller, and the building came into greater and greater disrepair – both because so much of the space wasn’t being used and because the congregation simply couldn’t afford to do any major repairs.
At that point the congregation could have had a chaplain help them ride out their death, as the church across the street did. They could have gone on till it was time to board up most of the building and look for a buyer. But they didn’t.
Instead they spent time listening – listening to God, listening to the neighborhood and listening to one another. And eventually it became clear to them that while it was time let go of the church known as Everett Memorial, they were definitely not called to sell the building and abandon the neighborhood. So they had a celebration of the life of Everett Memorial United Methodist Church, voted to establish a new congregation called Binghampton United Methodist Church and to turn the building over to the missional organization of the United Methodist Church (CONECT) so the building could be renovated and used for ministry and mission in the neighborhood.
The new congregation began meeting in a home in the neighborhood. And the building? It was renovated from top to bottom and became the new office space for the Office of Urban Ministries. And the Office of Urban Ministries, at that time directed by Rev. Jeff Irwin, began making the space available for organizations that in some way shared a vision of wholeness for the Binghampton neighborhood. It was actually during that time that the Refugee Empowerment Program moved into the building.
Barbara Vann helped me remember the details of the day we dedicated the newly renovated building. We had a gathering down at the Caritas Village and asked folks from the neighborhood to write prayers on these thin sheets of paper – prayers for themselves, for the neighborhood, for what this place should be in this neighborhood. We took those sheets, made them into a chain, gathered the chain and marched down the street, into the building, placed it around this makeshift tree, and asked God to use this space for God’s reign in this place and in this neighborhood. It was quite a dedication. Quite a death and resurrection story.
But the death and resurrection dramas weren’t through with us yet. Like I said, this building had been turned over to CONECT and had become the offices of and was being overseen by the Office of Urban Ministries of the Methodist Church. And not so long after that dedication, with virtually no notice at all, the two United Methodist District Superintendents came to a board meeting and announced that most of the money and responsibilities of CONECT were being transferred to a conference office in Jackson, TN. All that was left was the Office of Urban Ministries itself, with very few resources and with the Director and visionary for this place, Jeff Irwin, already on what eventually became permanent disability. The board was encouraged to disband and close up shop.
But, as with the Everett folks earlier, these folks didn’t go along with this notice of death and abandonment of the neighborhood. They too spent time listening and trying to discern God’s call for this space and the Office of Urban Ministries. They realized that the very essence of the work of the Office of Urban Ministries had been to support and help sponsor vital urban ministry in this city, and they began to celebrate that they were free of some of the other responsibilities that had actually made it hard to stay focused on that mission. People like Henry Varnell, who we miss dearly, and Jim Frommel, who was the board chair then and has continued serving on the board all these years, helped shape a new and very focused vision that was both for this building and for the larger Memphis community.
With virtually no resources, but with a load of heart, commitment and vision – and with Jeff’s help and encouragement – that board made the brilliant move of recruiting Amy Moritz to take the helm of the organization. Shalom community work throughout the area was a vision Amy loved. It was right up her ally.
Now I gotta tell you, in the beginning she wasn’t as excited about this building. But she came around. No, being Amy, she did more than come around. She began to say that this building had to fit into the vision of shalom in every way possible. So she began inviting like-minded non- profits to quit seeing themselves as tenants and to become partners who shared the space, shared their stories and found ways to support one another while making this building a true resource for shalom in this neighborhood and beyond.
And so, long story made short: CONECT became The Center for Transforming Communities (CTC). This building became The Commons on Merton. And the work of shalom, with the help of an amazing staff and a deeply committed board, has grown immensely in this neighborhood and in neighborhoods throughout the city. Partnerships with other organizations such as the Turner Institute in Nashville and Memphis Theological Seminary here in Memphis have helped CTC’s reach go well beyond that. Immersion summers with seminarians planted seeds that reach other parts of Tennessee and beyond. I could go and on, but my time is really already up.
But, believe me, it really is an amazing story. It’s the story of what happens when people allow vision to take the lead – to focus on God’s abundance in people, their gifts, dreams and passions rather than be intimidated by the narrative of scarcity to which many if not most institutions fall prey.
I’m proud to have had a part in this story. And, honestly, I’m in awe of what has taken place.