By Sarah Colson
On March 29, 1916, eight United States Army veterans living in the hills of East Tennessee decided they wanted a place for Christian worship. They purchased a building on Elmo Street in Johnson City (now Garden Drive) for $400.
A century later, in a brick church called Friendship Baptist at 522 W. Main St. in Johnson City, three men sat around a table and exchanged memories and wise secrets about what it takes to keep a church running a century long.
“It’s God,” Dr. C. H. Charlton said simply. He’s pastored the church for 39 years. “It’s all based on how we respond to what he wants us to do. He gives you people to work with that you can enjoy.”
Two of those people Charlton enjoys working with are long-time deacons Charles McConnell and Dan Parks. Parks joined the church in August 1966. McConnell joined in June 1942.
“I was joking with Pastor the other day and I said ‘you’re serving in a different church than the one that called you,’” Parks said.
The church Charlton originally came to serve was still on Elmo Street.
“When I was a young boy there were so many things that I had to put up with,” McConnell said, laughing. “When it rained, Brush Creek would overflow. And then we had some company from the hogs. Hog Pen Holler, we called it. … We’ve come a long, long ways.”
Friendship Baptist has seen Johnson City through the “Roaring Twenties,” the Civil Rights Movement, World War II and more. Charlton, with two of his deacons there in agreement, said at the heart of their longstanding congregation were prophesy, obedience to God, and most importantly, love.
The church has more than 200 members now, and Parks said that what’s kept him there so long is feeling like he “belongs.”
“This man has made a tremendous difference in the church,” Parks said pointing to Charlton. “He pastors with a personal touch. He knows everybody, knows where we live; he knows what’s going on with us. As for me, I have the feeling that I’m wanted here at Friendship. I could never leave.”
When asked what makes Friendship unique, Charlton said one word: love.
“This is the one of the most loving churches anybody will ever see,” he said. “It’s a genuine love. It’s a love for each other. It’s love for other people. I tell people we’re practicing for heaven. Everybody’s practicing for somewhere.”
In the 1960s, leaders at the church originally called “The Old Soldiers Baptist Church” and later “Second Baptist Church,” Friendship Baptist’s leadership realized that in order to show love, serving the community needed to be a top priority. In that light, a bus ministry started in 1968; the choir was organized in 1974.
“In ministry, a lot of the things you deal with are challenging,” Charlton said, “but it’s such a wonderful thing. …God has sent you there and God keeps you there where you are.”
Making sure there’s a place for everyone is important to Friendship, McConnell said. For him, the church’s growth in education is what encourages him the most. Charlton graduated from East Tennessee State University with a B.S. in Philosophy and a M.Ed. in Literacy Studies. He then earned a doctorate in theology from Emmaus Bible Institute and Seminary, a Ph.D. in Clinical Christian Counseling from Cornerstone University and a Doctor of Divinity from the Tennessee School of Religion. He taught for 23 years at Northeast State Community College, and started the Academic Excellence program at Friendship. The church recognizes students with a B average or higher.
“I’m proud of the strides that some of our members have made in the educational processes,” McConnell said. “We have quite a few children interested in education because of him (Charlton). He’s made the difference in a lot of lives in our church. Some of our younger members are going straight to the top.”
Charlton teaches reading, learning strategies, comparative religions, humanities, black studies and speed reading at Northeast, and said his love of educating his congregants stems from his understanding of the importance of education.
“When the little children grow up, they’re going to have to make a living,” he said. “They’re going to work for somebody or they may have people working for them, who knows? But you can’t get that opportunity for education if you don’t have some proof of accomplishment in the academic area and that’s why we push it so much here. …
“We applaud them and we have an education banquet and give little medallions. A fella stood there once and said, with tears in his eyes, ‘every one of those that I got in high school and a couple I got in college, I still got ‘em. I’ve got them hanging up. When I get really down on myself thinking I can’t do it, I just look up at them and say, you did that, you can easily do this.’ That’s why it means so much. … Nobody in the church has ever complained when we have those children stand up for good grades. And I think that shows the heart of the church.”
With both past and recent racial issues, the two deacons and Charlton constantly reiterated that race or acceptance had never been an issue at Friendship, regardless of the decade.
“We’ve never had a problem with it (racial tensions), but we love everybody here,” Parks said. “We’ve got people active in our church. We welcome anybody. We try to live up to our name out there, Friendship.”
As for the future of Friendship, Charlton said the only goal they have is to continue loving people.
“People have got to feel that they’re loved,” Charlton said. “They have got to know that you care. … Everybody’s important and we love everybody. We don’t have bias against certain people. You’ve got to love people whether they love you or not.”