Cascade and Grace UMC propose merger of congregations

Midtown site will focus on affordable housing, racial equity and gender justice

The 150-year-old Grace United Methodist Church on Ponce de Leon is discussing a proposed merger into Cascade United Methodist Church, a process that is expected to be completed in the spring once both congregations and denomination officials have approved the move.

The satellite church, the result of the merger of predominantly white congregation into a predominantly Black congregation, will be called Cascade Midtown and will have a social justice-driven ministry.

The Rev. Kevin R. Murriel, senior pastor of Cascade, said upon approval of the merger, Cascade United Methodist Church will be one church in two locations. He will serve as the senior pastor of the entire ministry and there will likely be an associate minister from the Cascade staff who will provide programing and administrative oversight in Midtown.

He said the merged church at 458 Ponce de Leon Ave. will advocate on behalf of marginalized communities and help those who are victims of systemic injustice.

The ministry will focus on such areas as racial equity, affordable housing and gender justice.

It will operate as a satellite campus of Cascade — once led by the Rev. Walter L. Kimbrough, a prominent leader in the United Methodist Church and an Atlanta civic leader, and civil rights legend the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery — whose main sanctuary will remain at 3144 Cascade Road. Cascade was one of several places that Nelson Mandela visited during his historic U.S. visit in 1993.

Midtown was attractive because of its proximity to the Cascade Road church, as a place of arts and culture and in an area that needed the kind of strong UMC presence it had in the past and the church could build on that legacy, he said.

“The east Midtown/Old Fourth Ward, that area is not only booming with growth but it is also more diverse,” Murriel said in a recent Zoom interview that included the Rev. Sara Webb Phillips, lead pastor of Grace.

Some details are still being worked out, including how worship services will be run and what role Phillips will have

Part of the plan, though, was laid out on Cascade’s website.

“The area codes of 30308 & 30309 have experienced significant displacement over the past decade. Shifting demographics and decreasing affordability bring many legacy residents to a difficult crossroads.”

Murriel has served as senior pastor of Cascade, which has more 7,000 members, since 2017.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

Grace has deep roots in Atlanta and at one time had perhaps the largest Sunday School program in North Georgia. Both are members of the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Phillips said the new congregation at that location “is intended to reflect the diverse, multi-ethnic population of Midtown.”

She said the church’s membership once reached up to 6,000 people, but in recent years it had dwindled below 100 members with a weekly attendance of 35 and faced the real possibility of ending as a congregation.

Still, the church had started to pick up momentum in growth when COVID-19 arrived and slowed its progress.

She said she didn’t feel as if there was anything she could do to regain that momentum for the congregation, of which 85% are age 60 and older.

She said membership fell as more people moved out of the city and continued to decline during a renovation.

Growth “just was not going to happen with the current congregation,” she said. Meanwhile, she had reached out to Murriel about holding a joint concert as a fundraiser for musicians affected by the pandemic. Discussions soon took off in a different — and more permanent — direction than just a charity concert.

The “political will” for affordable housing in that area is strong,” Phillips said. Additionally, “it’s a wonderful way for this church to embrace the fullness of showing that we are a denomination that seeks racial reconciliation.”

The proposed merger also allows the legacy of Grace to continue, she said. Its members understand that the move allows it to “enter a new time of ministry and a new vision of how church can be.”

She said she hopes for a blend from both congregations.

In 2015, General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, then based in New York City, entered into an agreement with Grace UMC to buy the property.

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Global Ministries is the arm of the United Methodist Church responsible for the training and oversight of missionaries in more than 60 nations and aids in disaster relief efforts worldwide.

The space is used for meetings, training and denomination-affiliated events.

Grace UMC uses the sanctuary and other parts of the building for programs and services.

“For us, we want this to be an example of what is possible when we truly reflect who God has called us to be as the body of Christ,” said Murriel.

Things to know:

Cascade United Methodist Church

3144 Cascade Road

Atlanta

Membership: More than 7,000

In the fall of 1926, roughly 20 people met one evening in an Atlanta home to organize a Methodist Church in the Cascade community. The first service for then Cascade Methodist Episcopal Church South was held that same year.

Grace United Methodist Church

458 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E.

Atlanta

Membership: Fewer than 100

Grace UMC was founded as an outpost Sunday School by First Methodist of Atlanta in 1871, then received a pastor in 1872.

Source: The Rev. Kevin Murriel and the Rev. Sara Webb Phillips; Cascade UMC website.