The black feathers on Billie Phillips’ hat fluttered as a gust of wind blew across the vacant field. Using all the strength her sub-5-foot frame could summon — and a little assistance from the Rev. Rod Stallworth — Phillips dumped a shovel of red clay on the consecrated land.
A chorus of “amens” sounded from men in suits, women in high heels and choir members in pale yellow robes.
The groundbreaking for King’s Memorial United Methodist Church’s sanctuary had officially begun.
“I feel that we need a new sanctuary to grow so we can reach out to the community,” Phillips said.
On the land neighboring the church’s current location, members will worship where former slaves, the visionaries of Decatur’s oldest black congregations, once gathered, sang hymns and prayed.
“With this sanctuary we are returning partly to our 1881 site,” said Stallworth, pastor at King’s Memorial. “We are returning to our roots. We have come this far by faith and members of strong faith leading the way.”
The “members of strong faith” date back to the 1850s when slaves attending the Methodist Church in Decatur, now known as First United Methodist, paid for and built St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Members would rebuild the church dismantled by Union soldiers and rename it King’s Memorial in honor of Methodist Bishop Willis Jefferson King.
Since 1881, the church on the corner of McCartney and Vine streets in northwest Decatur taught generation after generation about faith.
The first shovel of dirt hefted by Phillips represented more than 10 years of planning, designing, fundraising and a renewed effort to reach out to the community.
“The idea for the building started in 2002. That is when the building committee chaired by Clarence Jones formed,” Stallworth said. “Rev. Wylheme Ragland was the person who spearheaded the campaign.”
A pastor of the church for 34 years, Ragland refused credit, diverting praise to the congregation.
“It wasn’t me. I just assisted the congregation in envisioning the future for King’s Memorial,” said Ragland, who retired in 2010.
On Sunday, Northwest District Superintendent Mike Stonbreaker and lay leader Keith Russell celebrated with the 110-active member congregation.
In an era of decreased Sunday attendance and in a country where 40 percent of people claim no church affiliation, the construction represents a sign of growth and faith, the leaders said.
“This church is stepping out in faith so that they can grow the church, reach out to the community and work toward the United Methodist Church’s mission of bringing in more children. The children are the future of the church,” Russell said.
A lifelong member of King’s Memorial, Phillips, as a child, heard stories of the Bible and sang the hymns. As an adult, she taught younger generations the lessons she learned.
“I’ve been going here since I first came into this world,” Phillips said. “I owe my faith to this church. It gives me strength to do whatever I can do for God, wherever I can do it for as long as I can.”
During the groundbreaking ceremony, held beside a purple-draped wooden cross, Phillips responded with the rest of the congregation to Stallworth’s litany.
“That a church may rise here where little children shall learn to love God and grow in the beauty of Christian race and character,” Stallworth said.
“We break this ground today,” the congregation replied in unison.
They broke ground for a church that will inspire youth to serve, that will reach out to the lost and build members in the faith.
The church hopes to complete construction of the sanctuary — phase one of a three-phase project — in November. After building the sanctuary, plans entail turning the existing building into a fellowship hall with rooms and adding classrooms to the new sanctuary as the church grows.
Along with a new building, the church hopes to develop outreach programs.
“Our main focus is to make disciples for Christ. We want to reach more people by serving the community through after-school programs for children, a second language program and a food pantry. The space will allow us to accomplish that goal,” Stallworth said.
Catherine Godbey can be reached at 256-340-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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