The week before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was late for a march.
The sanitation workers in Memphis had been on strike for six weeks, when simmering anger over low wages, unsafe conditions, and outdated equipment boiled over after a malfunctioning garbage truck crushed two sanitation workers seeking shelter inside it during torrential rain.
The city government said the two men weren’t covered by workman’s compensation law, and offered the families a payout so small it didn’t even cover the funerals.
Days later, most of the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike. They rallied at Clayborn Temple, home to the most prominent African-American congregation in the city. The pastor (then a white Canadian) printed their placards in the basement (“End Dismal Working Conditions Now,” “Jim Crow Must Go!” and the famous “I Am A Man”).
King joined them in what would turn out to be a disaster of a day—the crowd was massive (city officials estimated 22,000 school-skipping students alone) and restless. King marched but canceled the demonstration when some protestors began looting. The police responded with clubs and guns (killing a 16-year-old black boy). When some of the crowd took refuge in Clayborn Temple, police pumped it full of tear gas.
King left Memphis, returning the next week with plans to lead another march. The night before his death, he told a crowd that included nearly all the sanitation workers: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
King didn’t survive the next 24 hours, gunned down as he stood on his hotel balcony just before dinner.
Over the next several decades, as his legacy grew, Clayborn Temple’s faded. The congregation dwindled, the doors were shut, and both looters and weather took a run at the inside.
Until a multiethnic, multiclass Presbyterian church plant wouldn’t quit asking about it.
Today, about 300 people fill the seats each Sunday; around 35 percent are African American. Congregants of Downtown Church look at stained-glass windows original to the 1892 construction. (Last week, the building—which is still called Clayborn Temple—was upgraded from a local historic landmark to a national one.) They hear messages from their black and white pastors. They reach out to the neighborhoods they straddle—the revitalizing city to the north and the historically black, underresourced community to the south.
It isn’t perfect—to some black members, the church feels really white. The ceiling is literally falling in. And members largely avoid the balcony, unsure of exactly how much weight it will still hold.
But the occasional discomfort is well worth it.
“God is really doing a work in Memphis, way beyond Downtown Church,” pastor Richard Rieves said of his church plant. “There’s a lot of things happening that smell of Jesus. It’s really exciting to see that God had a plan—not just to plant a church, but to revive a city through the gospel.”
When Clayborn Temple was built—76 years before King’s death—it was the largest church building south of the Ohio River. Its 5,000-pipe organ is still the biggest in the city.
Constructed by Second Presbyterian Church in 1892, it housed the thriving congregation for more than 50 years. But the combination of suburbs, the automobile, and gas rationing during World War II drew down attendance; in 1949, there was only one baptism.
That same year, Second Presbyterian followed its congregation east, selling its building to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). The country’s oldest African-American denomination promptly renamed the building after regional bishop John Henry Clayborn.
The African-American congregation followed somewhat the same pattern as Second Presbyterian, thriving for several decades before losing too many members to the suburbs. In 1999, they closed the doors.
When Second Presbyterian leadership heard the AME was looking for a buyer in 2003, they raised their hand. “We wanted to plant a multiethnic, gospel-centered church for the underresourced in the central city,” said Sandy Willson, who retired as Second Presbyterian’s senior pastor in February.
Clayborn Temple couldn’t have been more perfect: It literally sits on the street dividing a gentrifying downtown from Tennessee’s poorest and most violent zip code. (Plus, Second Presbyterian’s name was already on the outer wall, cemented in more than a century ago.)
The AME and Second Presbyterian drafted plans for a joint church plant. The AME agreed to donate the dilapidated building, and Second Presbyterian agreed to raise the $4 million for reconstruction. But before the deal was consummated, a new, theologically liberal AME district bishop was appointed. She immediately dissolved the relationship.
When Second Presbyterian later decided to plant a church on its own, planter Richard Rieves worked for several years with several different groups to try to get into Clayborn Temple, but finally gave up.
“I know the church is not a building . . . but it just seemed right,” Rieves said. But finally, “I got really disgusted and kind of gave up. Our church was growing, and I couldn’t invest any more energy and time into it.”
He didn’t have to.
Rieves is a native Memphian and serial church planter. He started congregations in Mississippi and Colorado before being approached by Second Presbyterian about planting in Memphis.
“I’ve always dreamed about it,” Rieves said. “Memphis, to a large degree, racially and economically, is really frozen in time at the civil-rights movement and King’s assassination. One of the ways radical change is going to come to the city is through multiethnic, multiclass churches.”
He envisioned a church bridging the resourced and the underresourced through the gospel—a powerful witness to the power of the cross.
Second Presbyterian was looking for the same thing. The 173-year-old church plant (out of Memphis’s First Presbyterian Church) had caught the planting bug.
“We planted 10 churches in our first 150 years,” Willson said. He tripled that rate when he came in 1995. Since then, “we planted four and have two more that are funded and planned.”
Convincing his congregation to plant wasn’t hard, he said. “Once you explain why church plants are important, if [the people] have a heart for the Lord, they get it right away. . . . We give [the plants] money and prayer and people—if it’s not nailed down, they can take it.”
Church plants have a higher conversion rate per member and can innovate more rapidly than established churches, Willson said. “Second [Presbyterian] is still very slowly becoming multiethnic. It’s a slow, slow process. But a church plant can be progressive in gospel diversity right away.”
In order to achieve a multiethnic plant, monoethnic churches have to expand their circle of friends and do a lot of listening, he said. “There are cultural and racial things you’re not even aware of if you don’t have a partner from the beginning.”
Rieves, who is white, only had experience planting predominately white churches.
“I had no idea how to make this work,” he said. “I started as humbly as I could, just listening. I really immersed myself in the underresourced community—mostly through nonprofit work—and met with as many African-American men and women as would meet with me.”
He asked them about growing up in Memphis, about their opinion of the white community, about what they thought of the white churches.
“There was a deep cry coming out of those conversations,” Rieves said. “They felt the white church, and the white community, didn’t care. I kept seeing the biggest hurdle was going to be earning trust.”
Nine years later, he’s still learning. “The model of the senior pastor who has all of the answers doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s more of a team of listening and pressing into each other and God and his Word, and walking by faith. . . . What I found more than anything is that, lo and behold, God was at work way before Richard Rieves showed up.”
“In Galatians, Paul argues for real, dependent walking in the Spirit and seeing the fruit of the Spirit produced in our lives, and it doesn’t always come through reading the Puritans or being exposed to Reformed theology,” he said. “Reformed theology, in many respects, is alive and well among people who have never read Berkhof’s systematic theology or Calvin’s Institutes.”
Rieves knew he needed a black co-pastor, and took two years to find the right one. Chris Davis was young, but “had a lot of maturity,” Rieves said. “He was tremendously gifted, and people immediately gravitated toward him.”
They officially launched Downtown Church in October 2010, sharing the preaching. When Davis left last October to help lead another church toward a multiethnic vision, Downtown Church immediately began looking for an African-American replacement.
Such shared leadership “has to be legitimate,” said Rieves, whose staff is about half black and half white. “The authenticity of our relationships as staff and leaders is probably the most important thing, because people can smell fake.”
It also has to be intentional. “Our core group took a year and a half to assemble, because it had to represent the community,” he said. “Our first elders, our first deacons, our community groups—everything we do is intentionally multiethnic.”
Rieves knows that can sound a little cold or contrived. “But we don’t understand how strategic and intentional we are to be monoethnic,” he said. Memphis is majority African-American, “so if you’re in an all-white church in Memphis, that didn’t just happen. That was intentional and strategic. You put the culture in from the beginning.”
That doesn’t mean multiethnicity is achieved from the beginning, said Erin Cole, Downtown’s director of operations.
“Many white people will say it’s a multiethnic church, and that’s technically true,” said Cole, who is African-American. “If you’re a minority coming in, it’s probably going to feel more like a white church.”
Downtown’s lead pastor and planting church are both white. While that makes multiethnicity more challenging, it’s not impossible, she said. “It’s happening now. It’s happening in the relationships my husband and I are building, and in more [minorities] joining.”
Both Rieves and Cole point to the absence of a black teaching pastor—Davis left last year, and his replacement will start this fall—as one reason African-American growth dipped over the past year.
“I do think it will come back up,” Cole said.
Growing the Church
Downtown Church’s weekly attendance rose from around 140 in 2011 to 190 in 2012 to about 300 today. The church met in a refurbished warehouse and then a remodeled train station. They hired more staff and began working with 14 different nonprofits. Nearly all their congregants volunteer in the church or community.
One is Betty Isom, an African-American woman who grew up in the nearby housing projects in the ’50s and ’60s. She was in high school when she learned Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. She remembers the panic, the looting and burning, the National Guard.
So for her, the history of Clayborn Temple is more poignant than for most others; meeting there with her multiethnic church is a dream come true. “Martin Luther King always said it was his dream that one day the black and white will come together,” said Isom, who grew up in an African-American Baptist church. “That’s what he would want, and that’s what I pray for too.”
Isom is one of about a dozen Downtown Church members—four of them white families that moved—who live within blocks of one another on the south side, where the neighborhood is “absolutely, 100 percent the hood,” Cole said. Isom lets anyone who needs a place to stay crash at her house; she has so many takers she put up a tent in her yard.
“She’ll hang with the toughest of the tough, and also be bringing folks to Downtown Church,” Cole said.
Downtown Church also volunteers with the youth, including an after-school program called Streets Ministries.
“Three of our staff are members at Downtown Church,” said executive director Reggie Davis, who also pastors a church in West Memphis. He joined Streets about the same time Downtown Church was planted; from the beginning he’s “loved the vision.”
“This church is investing in our children,” he said. Youth pastor Terence Gray is over at Streets all the time, playing ball and holding Bible studies. In fact, the partnership grew so strong that this fall Streets and Downtown Church will share an intern.
“We do a lot of off-campus ministry,” said Gray, who also teaches hip-hop in an entrepreneur class at a local middle school.
He interacts with about 100 neighborhood kids a week, and consistently sees about 20 students in his youth group. Seventy percent are minorities.
Helping youth see past ethnic differences is difficult, since they are “already in a very superficial stage of life, when they look at the outside of things,” he said. He’s trying to give them the same thing that helped him—“a bigger view of Jesus.”
Gray was the first black student in his Campus Outreach chapter at the University of Memphis, and knows what it’s like to be out of context. But that’s also where he caught his vision for multiracial ministry.
So he takes African-American young men to shoot hoops with a predominately white youth group on the east end of town. And he asks the parents to host some of his youth group meetings in their homes, so that students can deepen their experiences with those of another race.
It’s slow going.
“We can do simple ice breakers, like turn to your neighbor and ask how their week was,” Gray said. “But even that was more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s harder for them to see past everything else.”
But when it happens, Gray said, “it’s so beautiful.” This fall, Downtown is set to baptize seven middle and high school boys.
While Rieves and Davis focused on growing Downtown Church, Clayborn Temple continued to sit, vacant and boarded up.
The church is “one of only a handful of surviving 19th-century churches in Memphis,” reads an application for including it in the National Register of Historic Places. (It was accepted.) “Its style—Romanesque Revival—is even rarer.”
“Second Presbyterian has always built beautiful sanctuaries, but that one was my favorite,” Willson said.
Shaped like a cross, the building’s walls are nearly three-foot thick slabs of limestone, and the stained-glass windows are unbroken even after 20 years of neglect.
But water damage has rotted much of the wood, and whole sections of the ceiling are missing. The AME couldn’t pay for the restoration, but hated to part with it.
Then a man named Frank Smith began regularly attending Downtown Church.
“What’s going on with Clayborn Temple?” he asked Rieves. To him, it seemed like an easy solution to Downtown Church’s search for space when their location at the time, a train station, was purchased by a developer.
“Look, I’ve put all the energy I can into Clayborn Temple,” Rieves told him. He gave him a few names to contact, then told him, “Knock yourself out.”
It took Smith 15 months, but he got Downtown Church into the Temple.
Smith gathered a small group of donors to pay for acquisition and partnered with an existing nonprofit to take title of the building, which was crucial in making the sale palatable to the AME. After four years on the market, Clayborn Temple’s title was transferred to the nonprofit for $65,000 in 2015.
Downtown Church functions as the anchor tenant for the building, which also hosts educational and community events such as meetings, concerts, and movies.
The nonprofit group hired a team to write grants and raise money. Contractors donated materials and labor to stabilize the building. And on January 1, 2017, Downtown Church held its first service there, 124 years to the day after the structure was dedicated.
It wasn’t pretty.
“It was 16 degrees that morning, and I think it was 17 degrees inside,” Rieves said. “You could see your own breath.”
One local reporter described that service:
About 300 members and visitors sat in folding chairs in the sanctuary. Heat pumped out of ductwork that snaked out of holes in the plywood floor. Scaffolding holds up balcony steps and worn plaster exposes a web of wooden lathe in the ceiling vaults. The immense pipe organ is in shambles—the band’s keyboard player bent over to play an electric keyboard set up at knee height across two chairs.
“I kept thinking, What have I done?” Rieves said. He needn’t have worried. “Our people loved it. I didn’t have one complaint. Everybody was so excited.”
Challenges and Joys
“It’s bittersweet, because this used to be a white church that rejected black people coming in its doors, and then it was a black church, and now it’s a multiethnic church that that white church planted,” said Cole, whose grandfather leaped out of the Clayborn Temple windows when the police were pumping in tear gas nearly five decades ago. “I don’t look at it and say, ‘We’re doing an amazing thing and God is bringing it full circle,’ although I see why people say that.
“If we continue to do that hard work of coming together, talking through the hard spots, and not shrinking back, then we’re on the trajectory of something beautiful,” she said. “But just like Clayborn Temple, we’re still on the way there.”
Downtown Church is aiming not only to transform its neighbors, but also the church at large. Rieves has his eye on an apartment complex, where he wants to house pastoral interns—specifically minorities.
“I want to train the next generation for multiethnic, multiclass church planting,” he said. “I feel like the best way to do that is by bringing them into a living church and letting them do actual ministry.”
He’s already on his way.
Downtown Church’s ministry out of Clayborn Temple is “removing the excuse that multiethnic, multiclass fellowship and community can’t happen,” Gray said. “It encourages younger leaders like myself to say, ‘Man, we can fight for this. It isn’t impossible. And God has called us to it.”