The night that changed a church

John Sevier Fire

Volunteers and downtown residents celebrate Christmas Eve 2014 at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church’s Melting Pot.

This article is one in a series on the Dec. 24, 1989 fire that killed 16 people at the John Sevier Center. (Click here for more.)

I would say that most of us in this church had blinders and really did not see our neighbors across the street, but on that night – but on that night, Christmas Eve 1989 – the blinders were singed off.

patty muse, associate pastor,munsey memorial umc

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- When Patty Muse and her husband began attending Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in the 1970s, the John Sevier Hotel was transitioning to become the John Sevier Center. For more than a decade afterward, Muse said, the paths of Munsey’s community and those of the center’s residents rarely crossed.

Munsey Memorial UMC Associate Pastor Patty Muse.

“At that same time … in this community, this church was known as ‘Money Memorial,’” Muse said.

Dianna Cantler was a Munsey member when the fire occurred. Today, she’s executive director of the Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA). The authority recently purchased the building with the intention of finding a builder to construct new housing for the residents and then selling the building to a developer.

“We didn’t recognize our neighbors,” Cantler said of the pre-fire days. “It was very easy to drive into downtown — you came to church, you came to the few remaining stores that were still open and you got back in your car and you left, and you never looked across the street to see who was there.”

Then came Dec. 24, 1989. The church with the fancy organ and its share of deep-pocketed congregants saw its Christmas Eve services pre-empted by tragedy. Members and staff who were downtown did all they could to help avert suffering and ease it where it was occurring. And the question became, ‘what happens from here?’

Muse, who now serves as Munsey’s associate pastor with a ministry emphasis on discipleship and outreach, said members realized their little-known neighbors were homeless, and in need.

“After the fire,” Cantler said, “all of a sudden those people had a name, a face, and we realized we need to be taking care of our neighbors.”

Munsey’s early service to the community revolved around providing food.

Almost immediately, she said, some members of the Munsey community “came together and said, ‘now that we see them, we need to get to know them. Let’s do that by serving breakfast every Saturday.’”

Those “shepherd’s breakfasts” were just the beginning of an emphasis on serving – and receiving – that continues to evolve to this day, Muse said. Firehouse restaurant serves six times a year. So does Boones Creek Christian Church. “And other churches plug in as well,” Muse said.

Before long, others seeing the breakfast service decided they could serve lunch. For years, the lunch at the Melting Pot – located in the auditorium section of the old Mayne Williams library – has been an every weekday event. Currently, coordinated by Good Samaritan Ministries, 26 churches are involved in that outreach.

“So this community came together so now, instead of hearing ‘Money Memorial,’ when you’re out in the community and we’re asked … ‘where do you go to church?,’ and we say Munsey, people say, ‘that’s where I go to serve.’

Love is now shown in many ways.

“And so the brand, our image has changed, and I am so grateful for that though I’m sorry that it was a tragedy that started that change.”

One realization through the years, Muse said, has been that brothers and sisters with whom members and many other people from the community have connected “seem very different, but aren’t at all.” That is true, Muse said, even though many people served downtown are not the working poor, but people who truly can’t hold down a job, even if they want to.

“We as Christians, and we as the anchor of downtown on this corner, want to help people have their needs met, and we want to enable people to help meet those needs. We realize some people come and take stark advantage of that. Some people say, well, ‘those people’ ought to just pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” she said. “But you have to have bootstraps to pick them up, and not everyone does.

“We have to realize a lot of people who are downtown have mental health needs, unfortunately have addiction needs, and so how do we back up and try to address those things. In so doing, we’re seeking wholeness – wholeness for the community, not only for just downtown but for the whole community.”

The service and fellowship offered through Munsey are intergenerational.

Beyond that, Muse said, it’s useful for the people who serve through Munsey’s opportunities to recognize the themselves may have needs that are met through the process. “When we help people, we wind up being blessed. Something we didn’t even know needed to be helped in ourselves, is.”

The John Sevier Center’s pending transition and the resulting move of its residents leaves Muse with “lots of thoughts,” she said. She remembers that the people closely involved in serving residents weren’t given a heads up before the JCDA announced plans to find new affordable housing and sell the building for redevelopment. She did say “we’ve known for a long time that this was coming.”

Happy faces on a day of caring.

She said she is “eager” at the prospect of Sevier residents having good, safe housing with green space. But there’s a flip side. “In order to have that they’ll have to be moved out of downtown directly, which means they may not have access to services quite as readily. So we’re trying to walk alongside the residents to understand the Johnson City Development Authority really does care about them and wants to hear their needs and their wants.”

Muse said those who minister downtown also want to help the JCDA. “We want downtown to be as vibrant as it can be. Can all those needs be met? We’re hopeful, and we want to be a part of making that happen.”

Finding needs and figuring out how to meet them is “in Munsey’s DNA,” Muse said. Before the Melting Pot lunch program, it had led to the building of a swimming pool at one point, and the foundation of a preschool.

“We don’t know what will be happening in downtown in five years, but we will be here, and we will be seeking to be a part of that.”

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