The final report of the Administrative Commission for the Knoxville United Church given at the meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery on May 4, 2017.
On July 1, 1877, the Knoxville Presbyterian Church was organized with an enrollment of 15 members. Attorney Aughenbaugh, an elder in the South Side Presbyterian Church, procured the charter. They were now a full-fledged church, “happy but oh, so poor!”
According to historical records, this is how Knoxville United began its life 139 years ago.
On March 19th, 2017, the Knoxville congregation formally dissolved. Their membership was around 15. And Rev. Kathy Hamilton-Vargo, pastor of the current South Side Presbyterian Church, was the last moderator of the Knoxville session. And Knoxville church was still happy but oh so poor!
This sounds like a oh so familiar story of church closure. Actually, in this Easter season, the story of Knoxville United is one we should celebrate.
In John’s account of Easter, Mary Magdalene announces to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them the things Jesus said.
I’m not sure the disciples believed her.
In the very next verse, they are locked in a room. All the disciples know is Jesus is dead and they may be next.
But Mary testified anyway.
And I am here to testify I have seen the Lord at work in Knoxville.
You may not believe me, frightened disciples.
When we hear the story about another church closing, it reminds us that we may be next.
But I have seen the Lord.
I have seen resurrection in a way nobody would have guessed or have chosen.
But resurrection happened anyway.
Four years ago, the moderator appointed an administrative commission to assist the Knoxville United Church figure out what’s next in their life together. The folks serving on the AC included me, Bill Gracey and Darrell Knopp – both honorably retired, and Ruling Elder Tim Baily from Carnegie.
Knoxville United was running out of money and had only a handful of members to maintain a building designed to hold 1200. To save costs, the members of Knoxville decided to worship on Sundays with Baldwin UP. Rev. Bob Walkup had been serving as a part-time pastor for both Baldwin and Knoxville, so it made sense. The Knoxville church building was listed for sale in 2014.
Let me tell you about Knoxville. The South Side neighborhood is one of the city’s most neglected and under-resourced areas, plagued by frequent gun violence. Last summer, a 6-year old girl was shot and killed while standing on a porch of a house a few doors down from the church building. In other words, the church building is not particularly attractive to potential buyers. It sat on the market for almost 3 years.
The Knoxville session was approached by the pastor of a small, non-denominational ministry who were interested in renting the building. The ministry – Kingdom Life Fellowship — couldn’t afford to buy the building, but felt called to work in Knoxville.
Since then, Kingdom Life has established a daily after school program for children in Knoxville, which includes tutoring in partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools, enrichment activities, field trips, and a hot dinner every evening. Police officers from the local station frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids. There is worship and Bible study and community events in the church building nearly every single day.
This past January, with the blessing of the Administrative Commission, the Knoxville session sold the building to Kingdom Life for exactly one dollar.
Thanks to the rental income from Kingdom Life and the faithful giving of the Knoxville members, the final act of the Knoxville session before dissolution was to pay all of its delinquent per capita and reimburse the presbytery for insurance costs.
The Administrative Commission thanks Ayana, Carla, Roy and Dorothy for their support and patience. We give thanks and praise for Rev. Bob Walkup and Rev. Kathy Hamilton Vargo for their love and care of the Knoxville members.
If you are ever asked to serve on an Administrative Commission to help with the merger or closing of a congregation, I encourage you to say yes. It is holy work and important ministry. I can honestly say the experience of working on this Administrative Commission for Knoxville is the most fulfilling experience I have had in six years of ordained ministry.
I have been witness to the resurrection of vital ministry for the people God so loves in Knoxville. I have seen the Lord!
Please pray with me:
Holy God, we ask you to bless and protect Kingdom Life Fellowship as they seek to serve your people in Knoxville, and we thank you for the 139 years of faithful ministry of the Knoxville United church. May we follow your Spirit at work in all of our communities as we seek to be faithful to your Gospel and work out your purposes of resurrection and new life. In Christ’s name, Amen.