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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Faith

Memphis congregation embraced Cornish’s “theology of hospitality”

Rev. Cheryl Cornish at First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young. (By Karen Pulfer Focht)
Rev. Cheryl Cornish at First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young. (By Karen Pulfer Focht)

Shortly before she retired in October as senior pastor of First Congregational Church, Rev. Cheryl Cornish preached a sermon on the miracle of “the feeding of the 5,000” from the Gospel According to Matthew.

Cornish is a storytelling preacher. Her 2,000- to 3,000-word sermons are anchored in stories — from the Bible, her life, or people in her congregation, community, or around the world. “I love a good story. Who doesn’t?” Cornish says. “We see ourselves in the stories of others. Our lives are a collection of stories.”

Matthew’s gospel is full of stories. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus told his disciples as a large crowd gathered. The disciples demurred, noting they had only five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus blessed the food. “And all ate and were filled. … And those who ate were about 5,000 men, not counting women and children.”

Cornish looked up from her text and to the congregation. “Not counting women and children?” she asks. “Why wouldn’t you count them? What if you did count them?”

Cornish delivers sermons like she’s reading a letter to friends. “Why can’t I speak in the pulpit like I speak in real life?” she asked herself decades ago as a Yale Divinity School student. For 35 years as First Congo’s senior pastor, she could and did.

“You know,” Cornish said, returning to the gospel story, “if the crowd was typical, most scholars reckon that there would be at least two women there for every man, and that each woman probably had at least two children in tow.” That would put the actual crowd closer to 35,000.

“Cheryl is a dreamer, a visionary, but she keeps an open agenda. She makes room for everyone and encourages everyone to share their gifts. To have two women clergy on staff, one white and one Black, one older. I’m old enough to be her mother. Now who takes their mother to work? And they get along? That’s Cheryl.” — Rev. Sonia Walker

Cornish is a voracious reader. “I strip-mine books,” she says with a laugh. She powers her sermons with spiritual insights from a wide range of theologians, male and female, Christian and other. In the October sermon, she quoted Rosemary Radford Ruether, an American Catholic feminist scholar who argued that the exclusion of women from church leadership has led to the proliferation of male-centric attitudes and beliefs.

“Ruether says the reason there was so much food [for the 5,000] was that the women, as women are wont to do, brought picnic baskets — food enough for themselves, their children, one or two neighbors,” Cornish says. “So, of course, there was enough food for all. But since women and children weren’t counted, Matthew didn’t know where the food came from, and he presumed it was a miracle performed by Jesus.”

The First Congo congregation has grown 10-fold since they hired a young woman from Nebraska to lead them in 1988. This is a congregation whose food justice ministry has provided meals and groceries for more than 300,000 people, counting women and children. This is a congregation that understands how miracles happen.

Cornish shepherded the congregation's 2000 move to Cooper-Young.
Cornish shepherded the congregation’s 2000 move to Cooper-Young.

“When Jesus says, ‘Give them something to eat,’ he is not asking us to do the impossible,” said Cornish, who has spent her adult life showing what is possible. That a woman can lead and grow a congregation, even in a region steeped in religious traditions that reject women in leadership roles. That a small congregation can grow and become stronger by welcoming and celebrating LGBTQ+ individuals, couples, and clergy, even while other churches and denominations separate and divorce over the matter. That a once-struggling church can grow in numbers and impact by staying in the city and sharing its space, even as other churches seek larger and greener pastures in the suburbs.

“Cheryl Cornish has been a solid voice for good and justice in Memphis for a long time,” says Rev. Dr. Scott Morris, founder of Church Health and, like Cornish, a graduate of Yale Divinity School. “First Congo wasn’t a thing before her. It’s now part of the fabric of our city.”

Cornish, 66, announced her retirement last spring, recommending that the congregation hire Rev. Tony Coleman, associate pastor since 2020, as her replacement. They did.

“Tony’s ready, and we didn’t want to lose him to another church,” she says. “He grew up in Memphis; he knows the city. He was an intern here and then associate pastor, so he knows the congregation and they know him. He’s biracial. He’s young, 35. I was 31 when I started here. That turned out all right.”

Cornish wasn’t the first woman to lead a congregation in Memphis. A few others preceded her, including Rev. Martha Wagley at Springdale United Methodist in 1983, and Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in 1987. But no woman has led a Memphis congregation longer, or through such transformation.

The small, shrinking, aging congregation that welcomed Cornish has become one of the city’s most vibrant, diverse, and divergent.

Within a decade of her arrival, First Congo had outgrown its historic and constrained Central Gardens home, a Georgian Revival beauty designed by Walk Jones and built in 1910 at South Watkins and Eastmoreland. In 2000, they moved into the much larger (82,000-square-foot) complex in Cooper-Young.

First Congo now hosts more than two dozen ministries, including a food justice program, a farmer’s market, OUTMemphis, Memphis Area Gay Youth, United Campus Workers, HopeWorks, a Fair Trade store, a hostel, a bike repair shop, and various counseling services and 12-step groups, not to mention activist groups.

“First Congo, under Cheryl’s leadership, has become a model of radical welcome,” says Rev. Dr. Alvin Jackson, former senior pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and an early supporter of women in ministry.

One of those women was Rev. Sonia Walker, who joined First Congo as associate pastor in 2007, right after she graduated from seminary at age 70. “Cheryl is a dreamer, a visionary, but she keeps an open agenda,” says Walker. “She makes room for everyone and encourages everyone to share their gifts. To have two women clergy on staff, one white and one Black, one older. I’m old enough to be her mother. Now who takes their mother to work? And they get along? That’s Cheryl.”

Walker retired a year ago, but still attends worship services and considers First Congo her church home. Cornish and her husband, musician Mark Allen, plan to do the same. She intends to write stories about her experiences at First Congo. She wants new members to know the church’s history and older members to remember it.

“This congregation, this church culture, didn’t just happen,” she says. “There have been a lot of very specific choices and challenges and changes. The essence of faith comes down to our ability to love each other through the blessed times, through the challenging times, through all the transitions of life. You have to know your story.”

“May we trust that God will use us, even as we trip, crash, faint, fumble, and feel confused.” — Rev. Cheryl Cornish

Cornish’s story begins with a girl growing up in rural Nebraska. The daughter of an insurance salesman and a gas company clerk, a child who “never saw God as anything but a benevolent and creative presence.”

A girl who played the organ in her hometown Episcopal church, led by a priest who encouraged girls to get involved in the church and the world. A young pianist and violinist who majored in music at Williams College and ended up studying theology at Yale Divinity School. An eager student who never saw a woman wear a clergy collar or heard a woman preach from a pulpit until divinity school.

An aspiring minister who couldn’t get an appointment with her hometown Episcopal bishop to discuss her ordination. “Women entering ministry was still a big deal when I was at Yale,” Cornish says, “and we were questioning everything and everyone, including each other — how women clergy should be different, how gender would affect our choices, which Bible stories to focus on, which priorities to set for the church, even what to wear. We were not just training women for a man’s job.”

What they were training for was the unknown. After graduating from Yale in 1983, Cornish was hired as pastor of Ebenezer United Church of Christ in Augusta, Missouri, a village of about 300 people near St. Louis. “They were the only congregation that offered me an interview,” she laughs. “The church was so small and the pay so low, they couldn’t find a man to take the job, so it was a perfect match.”

Cornish led the tiny congregation for five years. The theological discourse from her studies gave way to “a practical no-nonsense approach and commitment to faith that I found very attractive. God is here when babies are born, when people die, when families are in crisis, when real life is happening.”

In 1988, a small and shrinking congregation of about two dozen people downriver in Memphis started looking for a new pastor. In her application, Cornish told a story about “a random group of musicians in rural Missouri” who formed a community orchestra because they “were part of a tradition much bigger than ourselves, the recipients of generations of labor and insight and love and aspiration.”

First Congregational Church’s five-member search committee, all women, saw their church in Cornish’s story. “We were struggling and Cheryl’s story made us realize that people who care about each other, and people who care for others, can do anything together,” says Judy Drescher, former director of the Memphis Public Libraries, and a member of that search committee. “That’s what we needed to hear.”

The story of First Congregational Church begins during the Civil War, right after the Union Army took control of Memphis in 1862. Originally organized for convalescing Union soldiers, it was called the Union Congregational Church, then the Strangers Church by its two dozen founders.

That’s about the number of church members who were attending in 1988 when Cornish arrived. In her first year as pastor, she presided over 11 funerals. The congregation literally was dying. “The first issue was whether we were going to survive,” she says.

Cornish led difficult and contentious conversations about the church’s mission and future. She told them about Dr. Letty Russell, a Yale faculty member and one of the first women ordained in the Presbyterian church, who taught a “theology of hospitality — the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across differences to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”

She reminded them of the church’s origins as the Strangers Church.

She told stories about welcoming strangers, including the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Jesus chose an outsider to his faith, a Samaritan, as the hero of the story,” Cornish says. “It was a stranger acting on behalf of a stranger, doing the things that each and every single one of us recognizes as compassion, as caring.”

Church members agreed that the best and most faithful way to keep the doors open was to open wide the doors, and not only to women in ministry. In 1991, First Congo became the city’s first official “Open and Affirming” congregation by approving and issuing a public statement “that gay and lesbian persons are welcome within the community of believers,” and pledging “to support and honor committed partnerships of lesbian/gay people.”

The church received angry phone calls and bomb threats, testing the congregation’s commitment. Their courage was tested in other ways. The HIV/AIDS epidemic spiraled out of control. In 1991, the number of AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. exceeded 20,000; by 1993, the number approached 50,000.

“Church members and their family members were dying,” Cornish says. “We were visiting them in the hospital and literally changing their sheets because the hospital staff was terrified. I still marvel at the way people stepped up to help, because honestly we didn’t know what might happen. I just kept telling people to wash their hands a lot.”

Regular worship attendance declined, not only because new members were dying. “People with AIDS were coming to the service with horrible sores,” she recalls. “So other people were scared to be in the same space. We had to decide what kind of church we were going to be. It certainly deepened our faith. It also showed the strength and resilience of the gay community.”

The congregation’s mettle was tested again in 1993, when the church hired and supported the ordination of Scott Howell, a gay man. When a national United Church of Christ leader threatened to reject the ordination, Cornish and First Congo members considered leaving the denomination. Howell’s ordination was quickly accepted.

“Cheryl has a great deal of courage,” says Julia Hicks, a lesbian who joined the church with her partner right after Cornish was hired. Hicks became mission director in 2001. “When we were discussing the ‘open and affirming statement,’ some people were concerned that we’d become ‘the gay church,’ and that would cause straight people to leave,” she says. “Cheryl didn’t care. She has always encouraged us, in her quiet, gentle way, not to let our fears override what we know is right.”

On October 8th, Cornish’s final sermon as First Congo’s senior pastor started with a story — the same story and the same message from the same sermon she delivered her first Sunday in June 1988. “She Who Laughs, Lasts,” she called it.

Cornish recounted a chaotic Easter service in her first year in divinity school, when she served as an assistant at a nearby church. During the service, a student carrying the processional cross hit a light fixture. A choir member fainted. Another fell coming to the rescue. When the priest tried to move the podium, a lighted candle fell to the floor.

“It was a three-ring circus. Everything that could have gone wrong did,” Cornish said. “It seemed cruelly ironic that, on the day of the year when we were most trying to proclaim the majesty of God’s triumph over human failure and wickedness, we were busy tripping over our own shoes.”

The congregation laughed. So did Cornish. “In our temptation to take ourselves and own actions too seriously, it’s easy to lose sight of the graciousness of God, who takes doubtful, fearful efforts and brings about great faith and courage, and even faithful laughter,” Cornish says.

The multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational church that heard Cornish’s final sermon was not the same church that hired her 35 years ago.

And that has not changed her message.

It’s what she learned at Yale Divinity School, where women now make up more than half of the student body and half of the faculty, and working within the UCC, where women now compose about half of all ordained clergy. It’s what she learned in her rural Nebraska family, which now includes an Episcopal priest (her sister), loved ones from two other faiths, five continents, and many ways of life. It’s what she learned as pastor of a small, shrinking congregation that found new life by practicing a theology of hospitality and radical welcome.

It’s what she learns again every time she reads or hears or tells a gospel story.

“May we trust that God will use us, even as we trip, crash, faint, fumble, and feel confused,” she says. “And may we have the grace to laugh at ourselves from time to time, knowing that nothing, not even our most foolish blunders, can stifle the work God has empowered us to do.”

This story was originally published by Memphis magazine.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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