Union Gospel Mission opened in 1950 at 1260 Market St. It later relocated to East Main Street and remained there until 2007, when its sponsoring church, Highland Park Baptist, sold its longtime building and property to RiverCity Co. After one last rent-free year there, the mission found temporary homes at the Salvation Army and then the former Senter School on Holtzclaw Avenue. But after six months there, the school was sold to Chattanooga Rescue Mission, and the program had to go back to the Salvation Army, which ultimately needed its space back.
Sources: www.theuniongospelmission.org, newspaper archives
Once in danger of closing because it didn't have a home base, the Union Gospel Mission has found a facility at the foot of Signal Mountain.
But its problems still aren't over.
The mission has signed a lease-purchase agreement with Signal Hills Community Fellowship Inc., taking over its church at 124 Signal Hills Drive. That has prompted an outcry from neighboring residents, who worry that it will bring unwanted transients to the area.
"A lot of people just don't want it out here," said Sharon Stern, who lives two houses down from the church. "This has never been a perfect neighborhood, but it's not like we had people walking through yards and stealing stuff. We have a lot of elderly people who live alone, and younger women with children."
Because Union Gospel Mission caters to former addicts and the homeless, residents fear increased drug trafficking, said fellow resident Tommy Collins.
"We've got enough drunks and potheads here as it is," Mr. Collins said, explaining that he has signed a petition circulating through the neighborhood expressing unhappiness with the mission. "I hope it gets throwed out."
But the mission owns the property fair and square, said David Kell, the church's former pastor, who offered it to Union Gospel Mission's executive director, Jon Rector, after he heard about the mission's plight and realized that his own congregation slowly was dying out.
Mr. Kell agreed to offer the church as an in-kind contribution of $150,000, handling monthly mortgage payments until next year, when it will transfer a remaining balance of about $50,000 to the mission for repayment.
Mr. Rector, who will keep the church open as Union Gospel Church, said the opposition he is facing is no different from issues he's had with past neighbors. Those, he said, were cleared up with time.
"I'm not upset that they're upset. I understand completely," he said. "What I keep trying to reinforce is, if you'll just find out what we do, give us a little time, you'll find out we make pretty good neighbors. I'm willing to meet with anyone and talk about any issues."
The mission will not be operating its emergency shelter at the new location, so only 22 resident disciples will be inhabiting the building. The men will have a strict 10 p.m. curfew and won't be allowed to wander the neighborhood, Mr. Rector said.
Program participant Chris Wiley said he's frustrated that people don't understand that those living at the mission have made a choice to change and actually want to contribute to the good of their new neighborhood -- not ruin it.
"People think we're bad people," Mr. Wiley said, "but we're not. We're really friendly people. If we all help one another instead of hate one another, maybe we can get somewhere."
Mr. Kell said he's more worried about the welfare of residents of Union Gospel Mission than those in the surrounding area, citing a recent example in which a neighbor approached and began hurling insults at the residents.
"When someone does not have all the information, there's fear. So they suppose the worst, and they believe it," he said.