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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Ricky Taylor, pastor of Arena of Praise, sits in his church on April 13, 2022. The church, off Brainerd Road, will open on Easter Sunday.

There were a few items left on Ricky Taylor's checklist as of Wednesday afternoon — connect the drum system and keyboard to the sound system, finish the youth rooms.

While many churches across the region are opening their doors Sunday for their biggest crowds of the year, Taylor's church is opening its doors for the first time.

Arena of Praise, at 3641 Brainerd Road, hosts its grand opening Easter Sunday at 10 a.m. For the 32-year-old Taylor, opening the non-denominational church has been a vision years in the making, almost since his first time preaching at 18 years old.

"When we started this church, we wanted to be a non-denominational ministry so that we can reach everyone," Taylor said. "I believe that's a kingdom assignment, from our perspective here at the church. We don't want people coming in with preconceived notions ... We just want people to come in with a free mindset, not judging us before they walk through the door."

The church's name, Arena of Praise, is a riff on Psalm 100:4 — "Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name."

"The vision is to enter into a basketball or football arena, but then the praise part of it is to bring that same energy from the arena into the house of Lord," Taylor said. "So we want to kind of combine the sporty but churchy at the same time. "

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Taylor played basketball at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and played professionally in Europe. He operates the basketball ministry Ricky Taylor Basketball, which teaches basketball skills alongside mentoring.

Taylor, who grew up attending church in and is a licensed pastor of the Church of God in Christ, began gathering folks at Orchard Knob Elementary School in 2017 for worship. Around 15 people were attending then and now around 40 do, Taylor said, many of whom are connected with his basketball ministry.

The church had been looking for a building for four years — they looked at an old Greyhound bus station and an old Dollar General — but eventually landed on the space off Brainerd Road. The space had previously been used by a Hispanic church, Taylor said, but his crew repainted walls, brought in a new sound system and installed new lights.

The process to get ready for Sunday has been overwhelming, Taylor said, even as he is excited about the opportunity.

The church, while non-denominational, is connected to the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, which provides some coverage for the budding house of worship. The fellowship promotes faith, family, finances and fitness, which is why Taylor was interested in being involved, he said.

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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / The worship space of Arena of Praise is pictured on April 13, 2022. The new, non-denominational church will open on Easter Sunday 2022.

"They really want you to have a holistic life. What is your life like outside of church? Like, after you get done shouting and dancing and rolling around all this stuff, you know, what is your finances like? What is your household like? Your health? And I really was drawn to that," he said.

Taylor credited Pastor J. Anthony Taylor of Greater Community Church of God in Christ for helping inspire him to lead a church of his own.

Conferences for faith leaders Taylor attended said opening on Easter Sunday presents a prime opportunity. This Sunday, Taylor will see if that is true.

Rebuilding after a fire

The members of Christ Church Episcopal in Tracy City are looking at an Easter service unlike any other in its long history.

On the evening of April 8, the church caught fire, burning interior walls and flooring. The fire is being investigated for arson, said the Rev. Amy Lamborn. Two of the church doors had gasoline poured on them, she said.

The 154-year-old congregation celebrated Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday in the nearby parish house but work has been underway this week to repair and prepare the sanctuary for an Easter service, Lamborn said.

Even hymnals and prayer books needed to be cleaned from smoke damage, she said.

"Holy Week is already a busy time but it's been an extraordinarily busy time because we're just having to deal with an insurance company, with the investigators, law enforcement and just getting ready for Easter and then also attending to these other very important issues that have come up," Lamborn said.

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Many of the church's members have spent their entire lives worshiping in the church's sanctuary. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

People know churches are more than their buildings, Lamborn said, but buildings have special meaning, especially those set apart as sacred places. Easter is the most important feast day of the year, so it is important for the tradition of worship to continue at the church in Tracy City.

"We're here. We're not just surviving, we're thriving," Lamborn said "And we want to celebrate the resurrection, which is of course all about everything rising from the ashes, all about the defeat of death and sin. And so by participating in that space in that way we're hoping that we're communicating to everyone around us — including the people who did this, who are no doubt observing from some distance however great or small — that we're still in business."

Gathering on Sunday morning in the sanctuary will be a sign of faith, trust and resilience, she said.

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

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