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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Ringgold resident Tom Henderson straightens a banner at First Christian Church on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.

Fielding Atchley Jr. was born into a church in 1948 that neither of his parents had grown up attending. His father's parents played critical roles in founding Red Bank Baptist Church and Red Bank Church of Christ. His mother was a Methodist woman from Texas.

But, a year before Atchley was born, his parents landed on First Christian Church, a local Disciples of Christ congregation. Some 75 years later, Atchley is still a member.

"That's a characteristic that this church has always had," Atchley said. "It's sort of a place where people from different denominational backgrounds, different sorts of theological perspectives, can find common ground and can be together here"

On Sunday, generations of Chattanooga-area families will gather at First Christian Church on McCallie Avenue to celebrate the church's 150th anniversary, putting the congregation among the oldest active houses of worship in the city.

The church will welcome the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ denomination, who will be the guest speaker for the Sunday service. Hord Owens became the first Black woman to hold the general minister's position following her election in 2017.

Church members, some with generations-long ties to the congregation and others who joined in recent years, told the Times Free Press they appreciate the church's openness to dialogue, doubts and disagreements. The church is a place of understanding and community, they said.

As Atchley put it, the church tends to draw people who are searchers and thinkers, pursuing that "elusive thing called truth."

Lonna Williams, vice president of the church and a member of the anniversary planning team, has been searching through old records in recent years, specifically old church minutes and bulletins. A member since 1983, Williams said she was inspired by the perseverance of the members, especially in serving the community.

Early church members were critical in launching Chattanooga's Community Kitchen and serving orphans around the time the Chambliss Center was launched, Williams said.

Founded in November 1871, First Christian's first member was Alice Kindrick, one of a handful of first members baptized in the Tennessee River near Ross's Landing.

First Christian's congregation operated in buildings on Walnut Street, Georgia Avenue and Pine Street before settling in its current location on McCallie Avenue.

In many ways, the church and the denomination's history have mirrored the history of the United States, said the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, senior minister of First Christian.

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First Christian Church anniversary

The Disciples of Christ emerged as a denomination in the early 19th century as part of a movement for Christian unity, Gilvin said. Founding members of First Christian were on both sides of the Civil War, he said.

"However conceived, we've always tried to be this kind of place of reconciliation," Gilvin said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's First Christian Church becomes open and affirming congregation after years-long process)

Hord Owens said the Disciples of Christ are a uniquely American denomination, unlike other Protestant groups that were transplanted from Europe.

There is an emphasis on the open table, meaning there are no strict requirements to be involved in the service or in taking communion. The denomination is not as hierarchical as other denominations, and, in the 1960s, the disciples were involved in anti-racist, pro-reconciliation work, she said.

Hord Owens said she is drawn to the Sankofa bird of the African tradition, an image of a bird looking backward but with its feet pointing forward.

The bird, she said, embodies "the idea that you learn from your history, you learn from your ancestors. And there are elements of tradition that you do want to carry forward, both from the standpoint of just the Christian tradition, as well as the Disciples of Christ tradition."

Hord Owens said First Christian Church has made a difference in its hometown.

"That congregation represents not only 150 years of just being a congregation in Chattanooga, but 150 years of forming spiritual identities and informing people and families to serve that community," she said. "It certainly had an imprint on Chattanooga. You can't have an institution that's been there that long and it not have had some impact."

Gail Rich, a member of the anniversary planning team, said the celebration is an opportunity for the community to learn what First Christian is, its history and where it is moving. Rich is a third-generation member whose great uncle helped finalize the deal to establish the church on McCallie Avenue.

"We want to invite the community," Rich said. "Everybody is welcome. It is not just for our little group to celebrate 150 years. We want Chattanooga to feel a part of our celebration that we've been able to bring good news to the community for 150 years."

The church will operate an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. There will be a church service in the morning, followed by a visual artist in the church's memorial garden, wine and appetizers, live music and a rededication of the memorial garden.

(READ MORE: One Chattanooga area church hosts grand opening as another rises from ashes on holy day)

The anniversary was originally scheduled for November 2021 but was delayed because of the pandemic.

Ismael Sandoval, the church's music director, said the Sunday service will include music paying homage to the church's past. He has been speaking with longtime members about what songs were important to them when they were children, as well as looking at old church programs to see what types of music were played in previous generations.

Sandoval is also composing a special piece for a string quartet, which will balance the sense of celebration for the anniversary with the recognition of sorrow for members who have died.

Betty Jolly began attending First Christian in the mid-1950s, drawn to the church's youth program for her three young daughters.

She served as the congregational president and is now, at 93, the oldest member. She said she enjoyed the church's emphasis on welcoming others and learning about different cultures and religion, such as programs she participated in with other area houses of worship.

"It's been wonderful," Jolly said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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