Church passing strong values on to youth, community
Built on Faith series: The Herald-Dispatch is taking a closer look at some of Huntington's places of worship, which have been a bedrock for so many in the community throughout the city's history.
HUNTINGTON -- Mary Plyde Bell was a newlywed when she first attended First United Methodist Church of Huntington.
She had recently married her first husband, the late Parker Ward, and moved into a new home. First United Methodist's pastor at the time, Arthur Beckett, stopped over to welcome them. As he was leaving, he casually dropped off his business card and said he'd see them in church, she recalls with a laugh.
"I was 21 and a new bride when I first walked in here, and I never thought about going anywhere else," she said, glancing around at the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, featuring Jesus' birth, resurrection and him teaching in the temple as a youth. "I've always thought the most beautiful time is at Easter, with all the flowers. When the choir stands to sing the 'Hallelujah Chorus,' it's just beautiful."
Sitting at 1124 5th Ave. in downtown Huntington, the impressive structure that is First United Methodist has been a church home to her and thousands of others in its 99-year existence.
The congregation has been around even longer.
The congregation of First United Methodist has had four names since its founding -- First Methodist Episcopal Church, North; First Methodist Episcopal Church; First Methodist Church and its current name. The name may have changed, but the faith of its founding members has been passed through generations.
According to historical accounts, First United Methodist Church's roots go back to 1872, when -- one month after the city of Huntington held its first council meeting -- five Methodists gathered in a carpenter shop belonging to the originating pastor, Alonzo Palmer. The next week, 40 people showed up. Saw horses served as chairs and a pot of beans boiled on the stove, but the young congregation was blossoming.
In 1874, they built a brick chapel on the corner of 10th Street and 4th Avenue and congregated there until building a bigger church at the same location in 1890. In 1912, First United National Bank asked to purchase the property to build their grand bank building, which is now the St. James Building. The congregation obliged and sold the property for $55,000, all put toward the current structure now on 5th Avenue. The $128,000 facility of Cleveland gray sandstone features 100-foot towers modeled after the Magdaline Towers of London. It was designed by the architectural firm Fulton and Butler of Uniontown, Pa.
The sanctuary of the church features a domed ceiling, and an "Akron Plan" partition in the back. It could be raised up or lowered to separate the sanctuary and Sunday school rooms. Today, it remains raised up to increase the size of the sanctuary.
The cornerstone of the church was laid in August 1912. After some delays because of the 1913 flood, the congregation finally held its first service there in June 1914.
The financing of the new church was a tight squeeze. According to church history, women of the church started serving Friday night dinners as soon as the basement of the facility was complete -- long before the rest of the church was finished. It is told that one Friday night dinner was vital in paying the workers the following day.
Today, a dedicated group of volunteers, or "Willing Workers," show up every Wednesday to do odds and ends around the church to maintain the grand structure, which had a large addition, or education wing, built later in the 20th century.
"We are fortunate to have endowment gifts from the past which help us keep the building going," the Rev. Mark Conner said, adding that this year brings a major roofing and structural project.
Dixon Electric has been a great contractor to work with, and T.R. Johnson is a member of the congregation and takes care of the plumbing. A community business that has added to the beauty of the church has been Archer's Flowers, which donates flowers weekly, as the family has been in the congregation for many decades.
There are a number of things for which First United Methodist Church has built a strong reputation in the community, from the "Noah's Ark" playset in the yard beloved by local children to its annual Lenten services to annual dinner theater programs.
Mission Dinner Theater, organized with the help of Jane and Jerry Morse, is a regular event open to the community. It supports local, national and international mission efforts. In terms of charity giving, the church gets involved in everything from Habitat to community cleanup efforts to filling backpacks for children in need.
Recently members were likely to spot pairs of underpants that were tacked to walls at random throughout the church building -- all to remind members to bring in underwear to donate the Cridlin Food Pantry, located inside Trinity Episcopal Church and supported through a number of downtown congregations.
An annual offering that draws folks from all congregations to First United Methodist is its Lenten services, which are offered at 12:05 p.m. every Sunday during Lent. Ministers from different congregations come to preach and lunch follows.
"That's something we've been known for in our community," Hensley said. "People come from all churches."
Directed by Tracie Long, First United Methodist also has a variety of programs for kids and teens in the community.
About 50 kids are involved in youth programs, some lifelong members and others who are new the congregation. The church even picks some of the kids up to increase their opportunity to get involved in weekly lessons in their newly renovated youth room that looks like a student lounge with couches, foosball, a large projector screen for lessons and films and space for games and activities.
"We wanted to create a space where the youth are comfortable just hanging out," Long said.
They also do special projects like helping out at the Cridlin Food Pantry, doing the 30-Hour Famine Fundraiser, and going on field trips like bowling or camping.
Younger kids do Jubilee City, rotating through different stations and focusing on one Bible story over the course of four to six weeks. They go to different rooms for stories, crafts, movies and cooking.
"They have the opportunity to learn the story in different ways, so by the end of it, they know it very well," Associate Pastor Steve Hensley said.
Vacation Bible School is open to kids throughout the community each summer. This year, the theme is "Kingdom Rock," and it's scheduled for June 9-13. "Let's Rock" is the theme of a concert planned by the church's active children's choir, set for 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 15, following the congregation's weekly Wednesday dinner. Wednesday is a night for members of all ages to enjoy dinner together and followed by activities such as choir, Bible study and more.
Each year, First United Methodist also has a special service each year in which the children and the adults of the congregation switch places, and kids take on all the responsibilities of the service, such as doing readings.
"We have wonderful kids here," said Conner, pastor at the church since July 2012.
Adult members of the church are active with Bible studies, Sunday school activities and United Methodist Men's and Women's groups and more.
Sandee Folson has been organist and music director at the church for 46 years. The church has a sanctuary choir, a bell choir and men's and women's quartets, as well as a praise band, which performs for the church's earliest Sunday service, the First Light Service. It's a more casual, contemporary service held in the fellowship hall.
It's well attended by people of all ages and is "our place to try different things," Conner said, such as "Holy Humor Sunday."
First United Methodist also is home to a Korean church congregation, headed by Pastor Yeon Choi. The group has its own room in the building and meets weekly.
Conner became pastor the congregation last summer, having been appointed by Bishop William Boyd Grove. Previously, he lived in Pea Ridge and was superintendent of the state United Methodist Church's Western District for eight years. He was in Bluefield for seven years before that and for 10 years before that was in Barboursville. He grew up here and there, being a pastor's son himself, having spent the most time in Parkersburg.
He's proud to pastor a church that "has a rich history of good church leadership," he said. And he's pleased that the congregation is filled with families that have stayed for many generations.
"A lot of families have kids that move away because they have to," he said. "We're very fortunate."