By Rev. Andy Langford
Special to the Independent TribuneOne of the most popular social events in downtown Concord is the weekly hot dog sale at Forest Hill United Methodist Church. Over the years, the 1,000 members of the church have raised over $550,000 selling hot dogs and desserts.
Beyond these sales, Forest Hill’s historic DNA has been taking major risks to share the Gospel. Throughout its history, instead of only focusing on the safe status quo, Forest Hill has made bold moves to do ministry in new ways. This year, the congregation is focusing on community, being a place where everyone is welcome.
In 1877, Capt. J.M. Odell purchased Concord’s first textile mill, the Concord Steam Cotton Factory (now called Locke Mill). A village of 800 people grew up around the mill and incorporated the village of Forest Hill in 1887.
In 1882, the pastor of Central Methodist Church in downtown Concord organized Forest Hill Chapel, with Sunday school and preaching on Sunday afternoons. Instead of expecting that the workers walk downtown and worship in the existing congregations, a new congregation arose for the many workers and their families. Odell’s son, W.R. Odell, became the superintendent of the Sunday school (a position he held for 37 years).
On the first Sunday afternoon, 200 people attended worship. By 1888, Forest Hill was a separate congregation led by its own pastor. Managers from the mill led Sunday school classes.
In 1889, the Methodists then built their first sanctuary on Buffalo Street. That sanctuary still stands with the church’s columbarium in a garden behind the brick sanctuary. Boy Scouts now use the top floor of the building.
For the next 100 years, the congregation remained a traditional Methodist congregation. In 1962, the congregation built an educational building, followed in 1988 with a more contemporary sanctuary on Union Street North. The church’s growth was similar to that of most congregations in Concord.
Then, the congregation began to engage in significantly more innovative ministries. Major changes would follow in the next decades.
Acquisition of Roman Catholic property
In 2004, the congregation purchased the adjacent former property of St. James the Greater Roman Catholic Church. The expanding Roman Catholic population moved to wonderful new facilities on Manor Avenue in southwest Concord. Forest Hill acquired the Catholic property, and the church footprint more than doubled. Forest Hill hosted worship and ministries in Spanish to new residents in town and found unique ways to use all its space.
The former residence of the Catholic priests became the Mothers and Children’s Home, sponsored with Cooperative Christian Ministry.
The former Catholic fellowship hall is now the home of a home-school cooperative serving over 100 children. The former Catholic sanctuary now houses Forest Hill’s contemporary worship on Sunday mornings.
Opportunity House/Narrow Gate
Opportunity House, which began at Midway United Methodist Church in Kannapolis, initially offered a weekly Thursday night supper and worship experience for the least, the last, and the lost members of our community.
In 2012, when the ministry needed more space, Forest Hill offered Opportunity House, the former Catholic fellowship hall, for weekly worship and a meal. Opportunity House also opened a day center for the homeless on Corban Avenue just two blocks from the courthouse. This work has now expanded into a United Methodist missional congregation out of the Corban Avenue site called Narrow Gate.
Now, each Thursday night at the gym at the former Kerr Street church, Narrow Gate/Forest Hill/other local congregations host a wholesome meal and relaxed worship to welcome people living on the margins of our community. About 80 people attend each week.
Kerr Street Campus of Forest Hill
In 2019, Forest Hill’s expansion continued when it assumed responsibility for Kerr Street United Methodist Church, about 1 mile away in Gibson Village.
In 1906, the Cannon’s new Gibson Mill workers needed a church. On Kerr Street, Methodists started a congregation with 34 charter members on land for a sanctuary and parsonage donated by the Cannon family.
The first sanctuary was a simple rectangle, 30-foot by 50-foot. In 1927 and 1938, the facilities grew. In 1946, a fire completely destroyed the building, and services in the new sanctuary were not held until 1949.
Yet in the 21st century, the lovely old Kerr Street sanctuary was showing its age and the membership was declining. Only about 25 people worshiped on Sunday. What would happen next?
Forest Hill stepped forward to assume the property as an opportunity for new ministries. The former Kerr Street sanctuary now hosts a thriving, independent Hispanic congregation. The gym is used by Narrow Gate/Opportunity House for meals and worship, a free medical clinic, the Boys & Girls Club, and recreational outreach by the city of Concord.
Forest Hill just donated 4-plus acres of land at the Kerr Street property to the city of Concord for a future park in the Gibson Mill area.
All these moves involved risk and uncertainty, yet reveal a capacity to take on challenges for the sake of the Gospel.
Forest Hill remains a traditional, mainline congregation. It worships on Sundays with about 75 people at its at 9 a.m. contemporary service in the former Roman Catholic sanctuary and around 150 people at its relaxed, traditional service at the newer sanctuary.
The church also offers a preschool, active youth group, and outreach to the community, including Backpack Buddies and a clothing closet.
The sanctuary of Forest Hill on Union Street North seats about 400 people and has a nice, open feel. Stained-glass windows surround the congregation. At the 11 a.m. service with organ and choir, the congregation sings hymns well. People verbally share prayer concerns and the pastors lead enthusiastically.
Mandy Jones and Suzanne Dornsmith are the pastors. Both are passionate about welcoming everyone to worship and all the ministries of the congregation.
Lead pastor Jones has been in ministry about 15 years and is married to Neal, the pastor at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church. About 10 staff serve the congregation.
Thanks to Mandy Jones for assistance with this article. Check them out at www.foresthillumc.org.