A congregation says goodbye
By Carolina Hidalgo, St. Louis Public Radio
ST. LOUIS, Missouri. - In the same pulpit his father had preached from for decades, he clutched the microphone and spoke.
“You whispered a word.”
Beads of sweat dotted his face. He stretched out his vowels so his words became a song.
“You called him home.”
Fresh flowers decorated the lectern. He wore a white suit with a picture of his dad pinned to its lapel.
“Father, we want to thank you for a beautiful life.”
The Rev. Jonathan Davis opened his eyes and looked at the dozens of people swaying in the pews. They had all known and loved his father, The Rev. Joel Kelly Davis, and now they were here to say goodbye.
They stood in the warm, cinder block building that has housed Grace Missionary Baptist Church for most of its 60-year existence. Each of them had a story about the elder Davis, who died two weeks ago at age 101.
They traded memories, each one distinct except for the little church at Cass and Jefferson Avenues that tied them all together.
That morning, Jonathan Davis — who took over for his father about 12 years ago — unlocked the church’s front gates after a month of services at a new location.
The congregation moved in early May, shortly after the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency announced north St. Louis as the preferred location for a new facility. Grace church sits on the southern edge of the proposed footprint, a 100-acre site the city has promised to clear for the NGA.
So now, Davis preaches in a former Catholic church building two miles away. But he knew his father’s farewell service, which took place last Sunday, couldn’t be held anywhere but here.
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It was here, inside these four walls, that countless members learned the word of God. One of them nervously recited the Lord’s Prayer here at age 9. Another sang his first hymn at age 66.
They took turns sharing stories. The pastor whose grandmother was one of the church’s first members. The 17-year-old who grew up singing in the choir. The man who came to St. Louis for a two-week visit but stumbled into Grace and never left.
When the city started talks with the NGA, about 200 residents lived within the footprint. Many organized to save their neighborhood. They demonstrated at City Hall. They attended public meetings. They spoke out against eminent domain. Two of them pitched a tent and fasted for 35 days.
By now, many have accepted buyouts from the city. A handful are still fighting.
Davis is not one of them. “Our faith teaches us that we’re not in control,” he said.
Still, he hopes that his father’s church will somehow be spared. He thinks the NGA could use a chapel. Or the church could be moved, across the street perhaps. To the old Pruitt-Igoe site — where his father used to walk among the towers, knocking on doors and spreading the gospel.
“My father had a way of reaching out and touching you where you were,” said his brother, Juan Davis. “In order to help you to get where you needed to be.”
Juan, the youngest of the Rev. Joel Davis’ 10 children, is not as optimistic about the building’s fate as his older brother. The city has said it is only moving one building in the footprint — Charlesetta Taylor’s three-story home.
Instead, Juan Davis hopes to build a legacy center and start a youth program nearby, in his father’s memory.
For now, church members are uncertain about their future and have differing views on how much hope, exactly, is appropriate. The NGA is expected to announce its final choice of site for its new facility by the end of the week.
Bob Hansman, one of the church’s newest members, said the congregation knows that the church is really about relationships.
“But we also know that little building holds a lot of memories,” he said. “We can kind of still see Rev. Davis there. We can feel him there.”
The imminent loss of the church, coupled with the loss of its founding pastor has been hard to deal with, he added.
“If we lose the building and we lose the site — all we have is ourselves.”