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Goodbye, 'good and faithful servant'

A tiny multicultural congregation will move on. A new Methodist congregation, one that is more reflective of the community, will move in.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 15, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Childs Park United Methodist Church is closing. Its last service will be on June 2.

Next year, a new United Methodist congregation -- under a new name and embracing the traditions of the surrounding African-American community -- will replace the 78-year-old church. Social service programs operated on church property will continue without interruption.

For Betty Brown, 81, and her husband, Weyman, 86, the closing of Childs Park United Methodist Church, 3940 18th Ave. S, will mark the end of an era. It has been part of their lives since childhood. Since the 1970s, though, the congregation has struggled to increase its membership and meet its financial obligations. A membership that once reached 700 has dwindled to a stalwart core of about 30 people. Six of them are children.

"There had been a significant decline, and we realized that it was not healthy for the congregation to continue," St. Petersburg United Methodist district superintendent Kevin James said this week.

"All members of Childs Park will go to other United Methodist congregations," he said, adding, however, that they would be welcome to return when the new church is started.

Moving will be difficult for Mrs. Brown, head of the church's administrative board, and her husband, the church's treasurer. She began attending Sunday school at the Childs Park church in 1929, she said.

"It was the closest Sunday school, and we were sent. I was married there and my two sons were baptized there and they were married there. One of them married the pastor's daughter. It's got good memories," said Mrs. Brown, who was church secretary for about 20 years.

Much has changed in the years since Mrs. Brown's family lived blocks from the church, and her father, an automobile dealer, helped put on spaghetti suppers to help build Childs Park Elementary School. As in many neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, the 1960s and 1970s brought integration to the area. As many white residents left and more black residents moved into the area, Childs Park United Methodist Church, a traditionally white institution, began to decline in membership.

Despite their decision to close the church, United Methodist District officials say they will not abandon the neighborhood, which also has fallen on hard times. James, the district superintendent, said the denomination will continue to operate its social service programs, including a structured after-school program and food pantry, under the auspices of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries.

"United Methodist Cooperative Ministries will maintain its visibility and ministry in the community," he said. "We are still going to have a presence."

Donna Ratzlaff, executive director of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, said she will miss the church.

"The congregation has over the years been so involved and so supportive of the ministry of what we do. So we will miss their presence," Ms. Ratzlaff said.

"Amidst their struggles over the years, they have continued to be faithful to reaching out to the community. They truly have been a good and faithful servant."

The Childs Park church is the third United Methodist church slated to close in recent months. First United Methodist Church in Safety Harbor closed Sunday. High Point United Methodist in Clearwater will close on May 26. Like Childs Park, both churches suffered from dwindling membership and financial resources. Even with the closing of the three churches, the district is planning to open three new ones in the coming year, James said.

In the Childs Park neighborhood, plans are being made to start a new church that is expected to be predominantly African-American, like the community around it.

The mission of the new church will be "totally different" from the old church, James said.

"I envision the new church will be contemporary and in the setting of the African-American worship experience," he said.

One of the churches that will be started next year will be in New Port Richey. The other, "a multiethnic" church, will be based in either St. Petersburg or Clearwater, James said.

Childs Park United Methodist Church had its start in 1920, when several neighborhood families decided to start worshiping in a large oak grove near the corner of 40th Street and Tangerine Avenue (18th Avenue) S. In 1921, a wooden church was built on donated property at 19th Avenue and 38th Street. The new building served as an interdenominational church until 1924, when it became a Methodist church. It was renamed Childs Park Methodist Church in honor of Dr. J.A. Childs, who had donated the original church site.

Childs Park United Methodist Church has had only two organists, Steele Roberts and Frances Power, who played for 60 years, said Mrs. Brown. Until the 1970s the church "grew and grew," Mrs. Brown said. "Then afterwards, we had the typical white flight."

In two weeks the tiny multicultural congregation, which is led by two temporary ministers, one black and the other white, will say its goodbyes.

"It's all nostalgic and pretty sad, but life goes on and I want to go on with it," said Mrs. Brown, who probably will move with her husband to St. Luke's United Methodist, at 45th Street and Fifth Avenue N.

Church members will celebrate the close of their ministry with refreshments after the last service.

"They asked me to get a sheet cake for the last day and the words to put on it are 'Well done,' " Mrs. Brown said.

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