Cooper: Something's brewing at Wiley Methodist

No one saw black or white in the group that arrived for a work day last Saturday at Wiley United Methodist Church.

That would've been so 1960s.

Instead, 20 or 30 volunteers rolled up their sleeves and did whatever was necessary to get the historically black church -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- ready for its anniversary service on Sunday.

Last Saturday, whatever was necessary included -- among other things -- moving pews, pulling up the dull red carpet and backing, cleaning organ pipes and throwing out garbage.

Churches prepare for Sunday worship each week, but this was different. The church, except for special occasions, hadn't been used for worship for several years. Indeed, the church had merged with a congregation at the Bethlehem Center in Alton Park, was meeting at the Beth Center and had become known as Bethlehem-Wiley, or Beth-Wiley. The idea to move to Alton Park, a sound one at the time, was that the community offered a larger growth area than the downtown church at Fifth and Lookout streets.

Earlier this year, Christ United Methodist Church, the denomination's largest church in the area, asked the United Methodist Chattanooga District office to assign it a struggling congregation with which it could work. The East Brainerd church had done the same thing for St. Marks UMC in North Chattanooga over the last couple of years, coming alongside it and helping it set up a working lay leadership.

Now, with CUMC worship leader Willie Kitchens and his wife, Barbara, who are black, wanting to be involved with the work, a black church was the obvious choice for the partnership.

"We don't have an agenda," Christ senior pastor Mark Flynn says of the working relationship with Wiley. The idea was "whatever helps the agenda of reaching people for Jesus Christ."

When the leadership team of Beth-Wiley and Christ met, the overwhelming vote was to move back to Wiley.

"That surprised me," says Flynn, but the team felt "that would help reach more people for Jesus Christ."

The next question was what needed to be done to make the building -- "one of the grandest in the city" when it was erected in 1887, according to Dr. Steve Byrum's "A History of the Chattanooga District of the United Methodist Church -- useful again.

Flynn says he knew his congregation couldn't afford to do repairs to the Wiley church, but then money began to come in from the district and conference and from Beth-Wiley members. Suddenly, the work seemed doable.

A member of the Wiley congregation paid for several large patches of the interior wall to be replastered because of water damage from a broken gutter. The district office kicked in money for the exterior of the building to be pressure washed. New red carpet was laid earlier this week.

Still in place and not needing repair are the stunning wooden ceiling and stained-glass windows. These must be seen to be believed. A good day for that would be Sunday. That's when the church will hold its anniversary service -- the congregation dates to 1867 -- in the newly refurbished sanctuary at 11 a.m. Lurone Jennings, a former Beth-Wiley pastor and now the city's administrator of the Department of Youth and Family Development, will be the speaker.

The congregation, which numbered about 45 a week at the Bethlehem Center, may swell to 150, Flynn says.

"That's all the better for the launch," he says. "People will see that something new is happening here. That's been the goal -- for people to come back."

The following week, Kitchens will assume the role of the church's lay minister. His style, according to Flynn, is to weave his message through music. And since the lay leader is a member of the Impressions singing group, Wiley could become a new go-to place for multi-racial downtown worship.

Alongside Kitchen will be a group of Christ UMC members -- Flynn calls them urban missionaries -- who have committed to attend and serve the church for an extended period of time. Whatever time they serve, Flynn says, will be "between them and God." They would "give their tithes and offerings to the Beth-Wiley congregation. They would work with them, serve with them."

The idea, he says, is "they would be coming with the attitude to work, to do what it takes to be the church."

Once the congregation is up and running at Wiley, Flynn says, additional needs will be assessed, spaces prioritized and outreach ideas put in place.

The hope, he says, is to bottle "the energy and excitement" of a new life for an old place.

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at