It was both an end and a beginning for Durr’s Chapel and Rice Chapel, historically black churches, and Christ United, a predominantly white congregation.
Attendance at each church had been slipping for some time when the Rev. Regenia Garrett became their pastor in June 2012.
On Sunday, the sanctuary of the former Christ UMC was filled as church members honored their past and celebrated their future as the newly-formed River of Living Water United Methodist Ministries.
Among the speakers during the special service was Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the UMC North Alabama Conference.
Wallace-Padgett shared a message based on the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13.
“Though there are some churches across the world and even in north Alabama that appear to be dying, there are also many churches that are thriving and growing. When I see a church like this one that is being revitalized and experiencing new life, I am inspired, excited and hopeful for the future,” Wallace-Padgett said.
River of Living Water will operate as one church at three campuses.
The former Christ UMC on Jones Dairy Road will serve as the main location. The church’s Celebrate Recovery program will continue to be based there.
The other two church buildings will be used for outreach ministries in the Frisco community of Jasper and in Oakman.
Garrett said the Frisco campus will likely host monthly grocery giveaways, weekly community suppers, Bible studies and adult education classes.
The Oakman campus will be the site of youth ministries, including tutoring and a monthly program called Teen Talk. Bible studies, Sunday evening worship services and monthly dinners will also be held at the former Rice Chapel UMC.
Garrett said she expects that the sight of black Christians and white Christians working together will be a powerful witness in each community.
“When they see us working, laughing, talking and enjoying ourselves in the Lord, it witnesses to them. We become the open Bible to what God wants,” she said.
Members of River of Living Water introduced themselves and their mission to Walker County last month with an “All That Jazz Christmas Ball,” which was attended by more than 200 people.
The merger of Christ United, Durr’s Chapel and Rice Chapel was years in the making. The decision was not taken lightly by any church member and involved a unique set of obstacles that first had to be overcome.
The seeds of unity were sown in 1988 when the Rev. Jim Short became the pastor at Christ UMC and Durr’s Chapel.
In a history given of Durr’s Chapel during Sunday’s service, church member Shelia Guyton said that appointment marked the first time in the UMC North Alabama Conference that a black church was served by a white pastor.
In 2012, Garrett became Christ United’s first black pastor as well as the first female to serve at its sister churches.
The Rev. Robert Mount encouraged the choirs of Christ United and Durr’s Chapel to come together to perform a Christmas cantata in 2004.
A joint Easter program followed in 2005. The tradition has continued since that time.
Garrett’s predecessor, the Rev. Dale Capron, instituted a monthly joint worship service called “Sister Church Sunday” several years ago.
Dennie Swetnam and his wife, Cheri, were then members at Christ United. In 2011, they made the decision to attend all of the services at Durr’s Chapel also and eventually became members there as well.
Swetnam said over time, the two congregations began to feel like one family as various opportunities brought them together.
“The closer we got, love bloomed,” Swetnam said.
Members of Rice Chapel UMC approached Garrett about being part of a merger earlier this year.
Mary Woods, whose great-great grandparents attended Rice Chapel, said she spent much time in prayer about the decline of a church that has meant so much to her family.
“Sometimes we get in a place that it seems like we’re dying, and we were getting to that point at Rice Chapel. But when Pastor Genia came and talked with us, the love was there, and thanks be to God, we were ready to get on board,” Woods said. “We pray that we will work together and pray together and that our future will be something from which our children can receive comfort, faith and inspiration.”
Willie Guyton, who came to River of Living Water from Durr’s Chapel, said there is already evidence that hearts and lives are being changed because of the merger.
An older member of the congregration recently called Guyton his first black friend.
“He did not have to tell me that, but it was the love that is there between us coming out. It’s things like that that open my eyes to what God is capable of,” Guyton said.