Historic preservationists and residents of North Knoxville’s neighborhoods believe their efforts saved the historic Howard House from being knocked down for a Walmart store three years ago – but Hope Fellowship pastor Dominique Lee says they had some powerful help.
“We just believe God’s hand was in it. He wanted a church to remain in this building,” Lee said.
Until recently, Hope Fellowship’s congregation was praying for a permanent home. They’d met in Fifth Avenue Baptist Church for a while and then moved to Austin-East High School.
Dr. Jim Millirons, pastor at Centerpointe Church, 2909 N. Broadway, had been praying, too. Three years ago, faced with the financial realities of dwindling attendance and burgeoning expenses, Millirons and his flock made the difficult decision to sell the building. They got a lucrative offer from Walmart, which intended to build a “neighborhood”-sized store on the site. The deal included the parcel next door at 2921 N. Broadway, an estate-size lot that was home to a century-old landmark also known as the Howard House, one of the few private residences left on Broadway.
News of the Walmart plan was not well received. Knox Heritage got involved. The surrounding neighborhoods rallied. And Walmart backed out of the deal, leaving Centerpointe stuck in its financial bind.
Things changed quickly this year. Lee and Millirons were having coffee at Starbucks one morning – something that wasn’t unusual since they are on a couple of Knox County Association of Baptists leadership teams together – and Millirons asked Lee a leading question:
“Pastor Jim knew I’d been looking for a building and asked me how it was going. I told him I’d been in prayer, and he told me they wanted to gift this church to a younger congregation whom they could partner with and see the city and the community be blessed. He showed me this building.
“And so this 40,000-square-foot building worth $4 million was given to us for the big sum of one dollar. Our first Sunday was two days ago, and it was a great day of celebration.”
Lee, who is from New York City, came to Knoxville eight years ago after he met his wife, Emily, a Knoxville native, at a church camp. They have two daughters – Brielle, age 3, and Jade, who is almost 2 – and another child on the way later this year.
He was on staff at Shoreline Church in West Knoxville when he was sent to plant a new church in the center city.
Hope Fellowship, which seats 400 in its sanctuary, is a Baptist church, but Lee stresses that everyone is welcome there. He intends to continue Centerpointe’s relationship with Nueva Esperanza, a Spanish-speaking congregation that holds worship services there at 1 p.m. Sundays.
“We value this relationship and want to keep it going. We have people from many different backgrounds here. We are a multi-ethnic and -generational church that seeks to see the city renewed. We want to be a church that does things like this,” he said, gesturing toward the tables full of food church members were handing out on a day when students were out of school because of rampant illness among the students and teachers.
“We want to be the phone call you make when you have an emergency.”
Lee said his congregation will be partnering with area schools to help provide children with a safe after-school environment and with food on days when school isn’t in session. He has plans for a food pantry, a computer lab, washers and dryers and outreach to the homeless.
“If we as a church could say anything to Knoxville, it would be this: Hey, Knoxville, Hope Fellowship loves you. Hope Fellowship cares about you. Hope Fellowship is here for you because Jesus loves you and Jesus cares about you and is here for you. We want to be known for that.”