First Congo Church offers haven for strangers for 150 years
It’s not often that a church is born from the politically volatile and contentious repercussions of the Civil War, but First Congo was.
As mentioned in last month’s edition, First Congregational Church celebrated its 150-year anniversary as a church in the Bluff City. From its humble origins as a church that once welcomed Union soldiers and travelers, to their relocation to the corner of Young and Walker 10 years ago, the socially minded church has navigated the tides and trends that have swept through Memphis over the years. What is amazing to both members and visitors is that the same spirit that once welcomed the outsiders to its pews still carries that same spirit today.
In Rev. Cheryl Cornish’s words, First Congo exists to welcome “people who don’t have a place, either because they’re homeless or economically marginalized.”
Since their arrival in Cooper-Young, First Congregational Church has hosted a milieu of organizations and groups that are located within their walls. However, these organizations are more than just your average building leasers.
“We now have about 35 partners in mission who share this space … and we really want to use it creatively for the good of the neighborhood and the city,” Cornish said. These groups range from Revolutions Community Bike Shop, which constructs bicycles from the remnants of donated bikes for kids, to Memphis’ only recognized hostel for travelers, the Pilgrim House.
When Congo first moved into the 83,000-square-foot space in 2001, conditions were less than ideal. Initially, when they began brainstorming about how to make the idea for a hostel a reality, contractors proposed that the section of the building that was to be allocated for the hostel would take about three years to complete, with a budget that was less than desirable. Instead, community members contributed their resources and expertise, and finished the renovations in less than a year.
Today, the hostel welcomes more than 6,000 visitors from around the world, from every continent on Earth (minus Antarctica, of course).
As you walk down the corridor leading to the bedrooms there resides a map of the world, which has been dotted with colored thumbtacks to represent where each traveler hails from. They cluster mainly around Europe and the Eastern United States, but if you look long enough, you can even see visitors have come from more remote places like Iceland, Zambia and Madagascar.
The wall represents the thread of hospitality and belonging that has categorized First Congo’s approach to outsiders. Today though, visitors travel just a bit farther than their Union counterparts over a century ago.
By Joshua Colfer