Presbyterians grow – Part two

By Frances Stebbins


This is a memory from the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly, and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.

In the years before the national unification of the Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian Church in the 1980s, conflicts had often surfaced – between congregations in far Southwest Virginia and the more urbanized Roanoke and Lynchburg churches.

As I worked mainly from my home with three children there and my (now) late husband Charlie covering news of Salem and Roanoke County, I often used the telephone to gather facts on several city ministries.

In the late 1960s, partially in response to the national War on Poverty promoted by the Democrats’ liberal President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Presbyterian Community Center was opened to serve especially the lower-income neighborhood of Southeast Roanoke. There were a lot of unemployed folk in the old Southeast neighborhoods when the former American Viscose plant closed after 40 years.

The wives of two of the former “silk mill” workers became my occasional child care help.

The community center was housed in part of a neighborhood pharmacy. Its director for many years was the late George Pollash, who told me it provided food, clothing, a gathering place for much needed information as well as some medical care.

Such help for aging and unemployed city folk seemed hardly relevant to those living in the small towns far west of the “big city” of Roanoke and the college towns of the New River Valley.

By 1979, the same year that First Presbyterian Church of Roanoke declined to accept a former Roman Catholic priest to serve on its staff, differences between the conservative coalfields area and the progressives in Roanoke were all too evident. Rejection of a new Book of Confessions by the conservative group angered those who liked the proposed changes.

This also was the era of women being approved for ordination as ministers, of urging racial integration, of lack of support for the conflict in Vietnam.

The Raleigh Court and Second Presbyterian congregations tended to support social changes, but from the old Melrose church the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) grew; it now has worshipers both on Peters Creek Road and to the south on Electric Road.

About this time Presbyterians became strong supporters of Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM), a downtown day shelter for the homeless which offers many other needed services for the poor. Unlike the older Roanoke Rescue Mission, which has always followed a strongly evangelical Christian practice, RAM does not expect adherence to the person of Jesus. Non-Christians also are supporters.

From this denomination also grew the West End Center for Youth in the scenic but depressed neighborhood around Twelfth Street Southwest. It was originally housed in part of the small West End Presbyterian Church and later moved to its own home where it still fills a great need in that part of the city.

In the 1950s, the era in which my late husband and I moved to Roanoke from Petersburg to work as reporters for the city’s evening newspaper, three Presbyterian mission congregations were started to serve the growing suburbs.

A WW II-era congregation, Northminster, was already coming together on Williamson Road, long the northern entry to downtown. The three new ones were Covenant and Colonial for the Southwest/Cave Spring residents and Green Ridge beneath the ridge to the north.

Today, much has changed. The Rev. Russ Merritt, who entered ordained ministry from Covenant Church and served congregations elsewhere before returning to the area in retirement years, updated me on several nearby groups. Covenant, which serves the higher-income neighborhoods in the Windsor Hills edge of the Southwest City, has prospered on Deyerle Road. It’s had several ministers, a historic tracker organ and leadership from the professional community in expanded buildings.

Colonial near Virginia Western Community College, has remained smaller, a middle-income group, its pastor once commented to me.

And today, Merritt serves part-time a combined Northminster and Green Ridge which, he told, me is making good progress in its merger. Living in the Hollins area for 30 years, I was familiar with Green Ridge for its family programs, but competition and other factors caused its decline.

Meanwhile, a new experimental worshiping community has been formed for southern Botetourt known as Wild Goose; its folk use a building of a Presbyterian group that failed to thrive. Its young woman minister employs informal seating and attire, contemporary-style music and a weekly on-line blog to “the family.”

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