It’s the side of inner-city East Nashville that few talk about: Amid historic renovations, organized neighborhoods, and rising property values, many of the area’s oldest churches barely can afford to pay their bills. Some don’t make it, and the most recent reminder is the 96-year-old Russell Street Church of Christ.
During the last three years, the congregation of the Edgefield neighborhood church struggled to rebuild its structure, which was severely damaged in the April 1998 tornado. “For a few months during the construction, we would meet in people’s homes,” says former member Eric Brangenberg. “Eventually, we began to lose members. It’s a shame.”
When repair costs exceeded the insurance settlement, the small congregation of only about 20 people had little choice but to look for a buyer. A few weeks ago, two elderly trustees sold the structure to local developer March Egerton for $190,000. Egerton, who has bought and renovated many residential and commercial properties in East Nashville, is considering a myriad of uses for the property.
“I’m hoping to come up with an adaptive reuse that keeps the church looking much the same from the outside and in good condition inside,” Egerton says. He doesn’t know if he will be able to replace the church’s glorious stained-glass window, which was also damaged by the tornado.
The Russell Street church was constructed in 1905 and was, at one time, one of the largest and most influential institutions in East Nashville. Like the Woodland Presbyterian Church, its sanctuary served as a hospital during the influenza epidemic of 1918. When areas such as Madison and Inglewood were developing, the Russell Street church gave rise to new congregations, including the Madison Church of Christ.
However, like many East Nashville places of worship, Russell Street’s attendance dwindled after the population of inner-city Nashville began to decline around World War II. The main reason for this was the migration of residents to the suburbs and the subsequent demolition of inner-city residential homes to make room for industry, interstate highways, and public housing.
Professionals began returning to Edgefield in the 1980s, and a few of the churches in the area (such as East End United Methodist and St. Ann’s Episcopal) picked up new members. However, few newcomers attended the Russell Street Church of Christ. At the time of the tornado, the congregation had only about 50 membersa small fraction of its membership half a century ago.
Since the tornado, there has been so little sign of life in the church building that it has worried neighbors. “The inability to find anyone affiliated with the church had caused problems,” says Bob Acuff, who lives adjacent to it. “There was at least one time when someone was caught breaking in, and the police couldn’t prosecute because we couldn’t find an actual victim.”
The church closure reminds people how fragile some area churches are. Jeff Ockerman, an East Nashville resident and former Metro Council member, bemoans the loss. “What is so distressing about this is that there was almost no connection between the congregation and the neighborhood,” he says.
Ockerman says he worries about other old East Nashville churches that have large, beautiful sanctuaries and small congregations. One is the Tulip Street United Methodist Church at 522 Russell, perhaps the most photographed structure in inner-city East Nashville.
Tulip Street minister Hyeon Hong says that the congregation slowly has begun to grow and now has about 70 or 80 members in regular attendance. “We are optimistic,” says Hong, a native of South Korea. “But it is hard because there are so many churches in such a small area.”
One church bucking the trend of declining membership is The First Church of the Nazarene, an 1,800-member congregation at Fifth and Woodland streets that has undergone many new expansions in recent years. Jeff Sexton, the executive pastor there, believes that many of the older churches in East Nashville have problems overcoming the perception that an old church building necessarily means it has to have an old congregation.
“The folks now moving into East Nashville are young,” he says. “They may appreciate historic architecture, but they look different than many of the church congregations. Maybe people have a tendency to migrate to folks that look like them.”