Idlewild Presbyterian: A Congregation’s Sense of Place

Cover photo by Fred Toma.


Idlewild’s Expansion Affirms Commitment to Community, Once Again

By Margot Payne

Midtown, Before Midtown

When you think of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, you may first picture the grand Gothic architecture along Union, or the sounds of the carillon bells. You may also think Midtown. The nearly 130 year old congregation has been operating in the neighborhood since 1890, though not always in the same spot.

In 1891, early church leaders purchased a lot at the northeast corner of Barksdale and Appeal, now Peabody, and constructed a small white frame building by the end of that year. The active congregation quickly outgrew the lot, and purchased another at the southwest corner of Union and McLean in 1895. Church members didn’t waste any time in constructing a new building- they simply picked up and moved the old one. As early congregant Mrs. E.B. LeMaster recalled, “I remember sitting on my porch and seeing the little church moving slowly down McLean Avenue – no automobiles to interrupt and if a stray horse and buggy happened along they moved respectfully to one side”.

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The frame church building was placed facing Union Avenue and enlarged, and surrounding homes were constructed or acquired as the congregation continued to expand. In 1909, a much larger Romanesque style red brick church was built facing McLean, just in front of the old frame building.

The multiple locations of Idlewild Presbyterian Church (All photos courtesy of Perre Magness/Idlewild).

First: The original white frame church after its move to Union. Second: The red brick Romanesque church on Union in 1907. Third: The current Gothic church seen during construction in the 1920s.

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Our Location Was Strategic

By the 1920s, as the City of Memphis boomed and the population spread east, the rapidly expanding congregation was outgrowing its space once again. Ignoring calls to move further east, trustees purchased four more lots along Union between Evergreen and Auburndale and began fundraising for the construction of another sanctuary.

Church leadership had just helped secure the move of Southwestern (now Rhodes), a Presbyterian college in Clarksville, Tennessee, to Memphis in 1924. A school-owned quarry in Arkansas supplied the stones used in the campus’ beloved Gothic architecture, and were again used in the construction of the new church designed by famed architect and Idlewild member George Awsumb in 1926. Awsumb believed “good architecture should satisfy man’s physical, mental and spiritual needs in such a way as to add to the general welfare and happiness of mankind.” Often called “The South’s Cathedral of Presbyterianism”, Awsumb’s striking Gothic design still satisfies its congregants nearly a century later.

“…our location was strategic, that our responsibility to our own community was great, and that our opportunity for service was unparalleled in the city of Memphis.”

Idlewild Fundraising Brochure, 1923

A fundraising campaign brochure illustrated the congregation’s commitment to the neighborhood as a turning point for Idlewild: “It might have remained a small suburban church for all time, but its forward-thinking and progressive membership decided that our location was strategic, that our responsibility to our own community was great, and that our opportunity for service was unparalleled in the city of Memphis.” That sense of responsibility and service to the Midtown community rang true as the church weathered and supported its neighbors throughout the Great Depression, World War II, and the social upheaval of the Civil Rights movement from their Midtown home.

Responsibility to Our Own Community

Idlewild Leadership: Dr. Paul Tudor Jones (1954-1975) left,
and Reverend Steve Montgomery (2000- May 2019), right.

Dr. Paul Tudor Jones became pastor of Idlewild in 1954 and led the congregation throughout this time of extreme tension and change. Jones was born in Corinth, Mississippi. As current Idlewild Pastor Steve Montgomery told StoryBoard, “He understood the South’s challenges of racism and segregation… When he was a boy growing up in Corinth, blacks and whites played together. He knew we needed to play together because we needed to learn to live together. That’s why Idlewild formed the first integrated recreation program in the Mid-South, with the intent purpose for blacks and whites to play together.”

Idlewild worked to encourage other churches to host integrated recreation programs throughout the 1960s. On the night of April 4, 1968, an interracial group was meeting in Idlewild’s parlor. As Rev. Montgomery explained, “This was one of the only white churches where blacks and whites could safely be together. They knew that it would be a long hot summer, and their purpose was to plan a summer recreation program for black and white kids. They received word while they were here that Dr. King had been shot.”

Dr. Jones and church elders had already been working behind the scenes with other faith leaders on the Memphis Committee on Community Relations to bring about voluntary desegregation of public facilities. Although their efforts had helped Memphis peacefully desegregate most public facilities by the late 1960s, churches were still falling behind.

Sit-ins and pray-ins divided many church communities, including Idlewild. After an attempted pray-in at Idlewild, Dr. Jones told his congregation, “This is not my church, but it is not your church either. It is God’s House. Anyone can come to worship.” “We lost a number of members,” Rev. Montgomery explained, “It was a gutsy thing to say in the 1960s… That was the time in which this church lived. It was a volatile time.”

In the midst of the Sanitation Workers Strike, Dr. Jones and other faith leaders had been crafting a resolution to deliver to the mayor. Their resolution took on new importance in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. It became a timely and essential “tribute to the peaceful ideals of Dr. King, a statement of support for the black clergy, [and] a plea for justice”.

The morning after the assassination, Dr. Jones marched with other faith leaders, both black and white, to City Hall to deliver their statement of justice to Mayor Loeb.

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Opportunity for Service

This is where we are. Part of our mission is our place.

Reverend Steve Montgomery

As the city of Memphis continued to reel after Dr. King’s death, Idlewild reaffirmed its commitment to its Midtown home. Integrated summer recreation programs continued, and the Idlewild Day Care Center was opened to families both white and black, with fees based on the family’s ability to pay. Church leaders helped form the Metropolitan Interfaith Association (MIFA), and other integrated social service organizations.

Bethel Daycare at Idlewild in the 1960s (Idlewild Presbyterian Church).
Roger Maness coaches basketball as part of Idlewild’s recreation ministry in the 1970s (Idlewild Presbyterian Church).

As Dr. Paul Tudor Jones prepared to retire in 1975, a church retreat was held to discuss the question of moving out east, as many other Midtown and Downtown churches had done. “There was the intent decision that we were going to stay here. This is where we are. Part of our mission is our place,” Rev. Montgomery explained.

Idlewild’s sense of place became clear to Rev. Montgomery as soon as he arrived in 2000. “We had found that much of the homeless population had been pushed out from Downtown and moved to Midtown”. Seeing the need in the community, Idlewild members founded More Than A Meal. “It’s not a soup kitchen,” Rev. Montgomery continued, “The purpose is to provide people with a hot meal and to sit down and hear their stories”. By facilitating relationships between church members and people in the greater Midtown community, the program is a holistic approach to support and healing through human connection. More Than A Meal has since grown from a few dozen to over one hundred participants every Thursday evening.

Idlewild’s More Than A Meal program welcomes everyone and anyone for a hot, sit down meal each Thursday evening (Idlewild Presbyterian Church).

Idlewild has also worked to welcome Midtown’s LGBTQ community. “That is one fairly large population in Midtown that’s largely unchurched for good reason; because the church had rejected them,” Rev. Montgomery said. In November 2005, Idlewild hosted the national conference for the Covenant Network, which was formed to work for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Presbyterian Church USA. Despite the pushback from pastors at other congregations, Idlewild affirmed their decision to host the Conference.

In speaking with StoryBoard, lifelong Idlewild member, carillonneur, and general cheerleader for all things Idlewild Peggy McClure, mentioned a favorite motto of the Presbyterian Church USA: Reformed and always reforming. “That means you don’t keep your head in the sand on the issues and think ‘It has to stay this way,’” she explained. Church leaders had to discuss “how to open our doors without judgement, and with unconditional love,” said Rev. Montgomery. Idlewild formed a Gay Straight Fellowship that meets monthly, and is a regular participant in the Memphis Pride Parade, sponsor of the OUTMemphis Outflix Film Festival, and proud host of same-sex weddings and the baptisms of children with same-sex parents.

Idlewild participates in Memphis Pride Fest (Idlewild Presbyterian Church).

Where is the Need Now?

“This is a church that keeps saying ‘Where’s the need now? What can we do?’” explains Reverend Margaret Burnett. Rev. Burnett serves as a pastor at Idlewild and also as the executive director of Children and Family Enrichment, or CAFE.

Idlewild had operated a community day care center for almost 50 years, but knew they could do more for Midtown’s youngest residents. As Rev. Burnett explains, “Back 15 years ago, when we asked, ‘What are the greatest unmet needs in the city… and what are we going to do about it?’ We were a bit overwhelmed… Broken-hearted overwhelmed. We kept coming back to the fact that from age 0-3, 80% of the brain is developed. How do you work with children and their parents during this critical time?”

Informed by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research, and ACEs effect on health and wellbeing later in life, Idlewild founded CAFE to provide children and families with the tools for life-long resilience. The prevalence of ACEs is not specific to a certain population- everyone faces adversity in life. CAFE seeks to provide all people with healthy ways to deal with whatever adversities come along. “We’re not just trying to help ‘the poor’ people,” Rev. Burnett explained, “We’re trying to say, ‘You’re going to have adversity. My child is going to have adversity, that’s how life is. How do we help them have the tools to deal with it? The goal is not just to help people ‘over there’ because we’re being benevolent. This is not about feeling sorry for people. It’s about relationships; being there together.”

The Old Jones Building: A rendering of the east and west facades of Idlewild Presbyterian Church and a proposed addition of a Youth Center. George Awsumb & Sons, Architects. 1958-02-20. Memphis Public Library.

Progress: An Early Enrichment Center student looks on as the transformation of the 1958 Jones Building into the new Family Enrichment Center at Idlewild nears completion (Idlewild Presbyterian Church).

CAFE is composed of two programs, the Early Enrichment Center (EEC) and the Parent Enrichment Place. Instead of constructing a brand new facility to house these initiatives elsewhere, Idlewild took on a complete restoration of the Jones Building, the old day care and rec center, in 2017.

The EEC is a day school for children aged 6 weeks to Junior Kindergarten. With the renovation nearly complete, the EEC opened in the bottom floor of the Jones Building earlier this year. Four spots are currently reserved for children in need of scholarships, but they hope to increase that support to ten or more families. “This is a perfect example of how our membership feels strongly that we are here to stay,” said Peggy McClure. “We’re here to serve the city. To me, that’s the story.”

Must Be a Pretty Church

Postcard of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee, c. 1930s-40s. Courtesy Chamber of Commerce, Memphis, Tenn. Memphis Public Library.

Idlewild Presbyterian Church was designed by famed architect and Idlewild member George Awsumb in 1926. The grand Gothic architecture and unique stonework is such a stunning part of the Union Avenue streetscape that the Kroger at Union and LeMaster designed their new building to capture the view (below). Idlewild welcomed Kroger to Midtown by playing the carillon bells during their grand opening in 2016. Original photos by Mark Fleischer.

The renovation of the Jones Building was completed in May 2019, which coincided with Reverend Steve Montgomery’s retirement after 19 years of serving Idlewild and 39 years in ministry.

“People pass by here on Union Avenue, they say ‘Oh that must be a pretty church’. But it can be kind of intimidating to walk in here for the first time” said Rev. Montgomery. In keeping with his legacy of continuing Idlewild’s inclusive and friendly environment, Rev. Montgomery invited StoryBoard readers to attend his retirement celebration on Sunday, May 5. A 10:30 am worship service was followed by a potluck lunch and tour of the new CAFE facilities. The new fellowship hall in the Jones Building will be named Montgomery Hall.

Upon retirement, Rev. Montgomery and his wife considered moving back to the east coast, maybe to the mountains of North Carolina or Vermont. But like his congregation over the past 129 years, the pastor and his family are going to stay put: “We’re going to stay in Memphis. It has big town amenities, but a small town feel. Especially Midtown.”

This article originally appeared in print Issue VII, the April 2019 Equitable Issue, front page and pages 16-17.

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