Pastor helps neighborhood heal

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 24, 2011

By Emily Ford
When Annalee Allen arrived at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in 2005 as a first-time pastor, she started each morning by cleaning the sheltered entrance.
She removed beer bottles.
Drug paraphernalia.
People even used this historic church, built in 1916 and anchor of the pivotal Park Avenue neighborhood, as a bathroom.
When Allen arrived at Park Avenue United Methodist, a church once so full of children that teachers held Sunday school classes in the bell tower, she found bullet holes in more than a dozen windows and an average weekly attendance of about 20 people.
She found drug deals on the corner, one of the most notorious intersections in Salisbury — Park Avenue and North Shaver Street.
She found a congregation caring deeply and profoundly for each other, and soon for her, but still wounded emotionally from the murders of two beloved members in 1992, gunned down in their home across the street.
“Fear was very present,” Allen said. “Within the church was a feeling that they were just here, just existing. Almost like they were waiting for something.”
For something else bad.
Opening the doors
The church had closed itself off from the deteriorating neighborhood, figuratively and literally. In the 1980s, the church tore down the parsonage, moving its pastor to a home in another community.
After numerous break-ins and the murders of B.P. and Ruby Tutterow, the church bricked up more than two dozen windows.
But over the past six years, slowly and gently, Allen has worked to reopen the church, teaching members to serve the neighborhood they once feared.
With a steadfast faith in God and calm determination, Allen, 43, a former shoe store manager, has encouraged church members to open their hearts and reach out to the less fortunate in the Park Avenue neighborhood.
“She keeps pushing them gently forward,” said Sally Langford, the United Methodist district supervisor who assigned Allen to Park Avenue. “And generally, they’ve come along with her.”
A new prayer garden graces the church’s front yard. Anyone is welcome.
The church hosts neighborhood picnics in Cannon Park and at Halloween, a trunk or treat. Anyone may attend.
This winter, standing on the porch once so defiled, church members handed out 47 blankets and 41 cups of hot chocolate. Another Sunday, they handed out dozens of scarves and gloves.
Perhaps most remarkably, Park Avenue United Methodist Church now opens its doors every weekday to more than a dozen homeless people for an instructional program called New Tomorrows.
Congregation members say New Tomorrows is one of the best things the church has ever done.
Class participants walk two blocks from Rowan Helping Ministries to the church, where they learn to cook, practice yoga, study the Bible and more.
Dianne Scott, former executive director for Rowan Helping Ministries, calls Allen a visionary.
“She does not easily get discouraged,” Scott said. “She can’t get up the mountain one way, she comes around and tries to climb it another way.”
A growing vision
Allen’s assignment in Salisbury has grown. Assisted by her husband Craig Allen, a student at Hood Theological Seminary, she now serves three United Methodist churches — Park Avenue, Coburn Memorial and Main Street — and has created the mission-driven Downtown Salisbury Cooperative Parish.
The cooperative parish, unique in the region, was Allen’s idea, Langford said.
“She has great vision for what to do with ministry,” Langford said. “She has great passion for growing whatever situation she is in, for imagining how the church can minister to the community.”
While the three churches remain independent, they share ideas and collaborate on weekly service projects like a clothing closet for foster children.
“The status quo or going backward or accepting decline is not on her radar screen,” Langford said. “She thinks outside the box about how the church can be engaged in the community.”
Turning points
Allen, mother of Claire, 16, and Joy, 12, has experienced her own transformation since arriving at Park Avenue United Methodist Church.
Fresh from a stint as the youth director at a thriving church in rural Davidson County with more than 40 children, Allen said she spent the first six months of her new assignment in culture shock.
“I kept asking God, why have I been sent here? Why?”
Confused and unsure, Allen walked into the sanctuary one day, alone.
“I just felt this presence with me,” Allen said. “And the line came to me, ‘Teach them to be servants.’ ”
Allen carried the experience with her for several days, pondering what the charge could mean for the pastor of a church where nearly everyone is older than 75.
Finally, Allen shared her directive from the Holy Spirit with the congregation. They were willing to try.
“We decided to take baby steps,” she said.
They began by collecting canned goods for the food pantry at Rowan Helping Ministries. They met their goal each month.
They started filling 5-gallon buckets with supplies for flood victims in the N.C. mountains. They reached that goal.
Lay leaders in the church were thrilled with the results. Excitement started to grow.
Faith over fear
Then one Sunday in July 2007, Allen arrived at the church with her family for worship. Daughter Joy saw it first.
“Mommy, someone broke a window,” Allen recalls Joy saying.
A bullet had shattered a protective covering and pierced one of the majestic stained glass windows in the front of the church.
From inside the church, through the jagged bullet hole, Allen could see the Tutterow house across the street.
“That was a turning point,” she said. “That, for me, was the first time I felt a little twinge of fear. Up until that time, I’d never been fearful.”
They called the police and reported the crime. And eventually, Allen’s fear subsided.
She hasn’t felt afraid since, even discouraging a drug deal across the street from the church before a funeral.
“She’s not a very tall person, but she stands tall in her faith,” Craig Allen said.
Sara Potts, daughter of B.P. and Ruby Tutterow, credits Allen with much of the healing that has taken place in the church since the brutal murders of her parents.
“Personally, I think it takes a woman to do that,” said Potts, who grew up sitting in the front row with her father, listening to her mother sing in the choir.
Allen is the church’s first female pastor.
Potts, a retired sheriff’s deputy who directs the Rowan County Housing Authority, attended Park Avenue for several years after her parents’ deaths. As membership dwindled, she moved to another church seeking a youth program for her grandson, whom she helped raise.
Her membership, however, remains at Park Avenue.
“I will not move my membership,” she said. “I have a warm place in my heart for that neighborhood and that church.”
Learning to serve
To learn to be servants, church members had to be able to serve food, Allen decided.
The church kitchen was in horrible condition, with plaster falling off the walls as people tried to cook. Volunteers from Coburn Memorial and a Catholic men’s group spent a month renovating the kitchen, now clean and useful.
Toward the end of the project, Allen finished tiling a portion of the floor. Alone one day, on her knees, she had a vision.
She saw people, many people, using the church on a regular basis.
For years, the three-story education building had stood empty except for Sundays. But Allen’s vision was clear — there were people, somewhere, who needed to use Park Avenue United Methodist Church every day.
“I carried that with me. Actually, I tried to forget it, but I couldn’t,” Allen said. “I learned the definition of passion: You don’t know why you care, but you do and you can’t let go of it.”
She finally called Langford. Allen’s supervisor suggested she start contacting people, anyone she could think of, who might need to use the church’s education building.
In 2008, at 5:15 p.m., Allen made her first phone call to Scott at Rowan Helping Ministries. She expected to have to leave a message, but soon Scott was on the phone.
Allen identified herself.
“I’ve been waiting for your call,” Scott said.
New tomorrows
Together, the women brainstormed ideas that eventually, with help from others, would become the New Tomorrows program.
Some 100 volunteers from churches and Pfeiffer University spent two months renovating the education building to host the program, which focuses not on home ownership or employment but on self-worth.
When participants enroll, they often are angry, hurt and lonely, Allen said. As the weeks and months pass, she watches a transformation.
“They begin to realize, ‘Hey, I am important. Somebody does love me, somebody does care,’ ” she said.
Since New Tomorrows began, abuse of the church has stopped. Allen no longer has to clean up the porch. People have stopped shooting the windows. Litter has disappeared from the front yard.
She hasn’t witnessed any more drug deals, “although I’m not naive enough to think it’s not going on. It’s just not going on here,” she said.
Allen believes people began to respect the church and its work in the community. Park Avenue church has once again become a vital presence in the Park Avenue neighborhood.
James “Bubba” Phillips, a former New Tomorrows participant, joined the church, served as a trustee and now works as the janitor.
“Bubba is our greatest evangelist,” Allen said.
Still a challenge
Phillips brought four visitors with him to a recent Sunday service. In all, 15 people gathered for worship.
Though the pews sat nearly empty, Allen’s passion filled the sanctuary. She urged the congregation to share Park Avenue’s mission with others.
Invite them to “come with me and see how our hearts have been broken over the pain suffered in the world. Come with me and see how we are allowing God to use us as a tool to alleviate some of the suffering,” Allen said.
“Come with me and see what can happen through the power of Jesus Christ on the corner of Park Avenue and Shaver Street.”
After the service, members talked about their church, once home to five women’s circles and a half-dozen Sunday school classes. Many left when they married, but these ladies stayed.
“We loved the church enough that we kept coming,” Darlene Drye said.
The church lost members when Cannon Mills Plant 7 closed, Hilda Hart said. The Tutterow deaths were painful, Kathleen Young said.
“It was devastating,” Young said.
The church has tried to bring in new members, said Sue Crowell, whose husband William Crowell served as pastor.
The women worry about the future of their beloved church.
Only a few members have joined. The church hasn’t made its budget since 2007. The sanctuary and education building need additional repair.
Between her three churches, Allen has conducted 53 funerals in six years.
“It’s been a huge challenge,” Langford said. “And it remains so.”
A sense of hope
Like anyone, Allen becomes discouraged and frustrated. Even sad. But despite the challenges, she maintains her optimism.
“I am very intentional every single day looking for where God is at work,” she said. “That’s where my hope is.”
Allen doesn’t fixate on growing the membership at Park Avenue, or any of her churches. Instead, she concentrates on growing their connections with God.
“I see my role as a yoke between God and the congregation,” she said. “God is at work transforming them. God is at work, not me.”
As a child growing up in Franklin, N.C., Allen once found a bird’s nest with three eggs. Later, the eggs were gone.
Distraught, she went to her grandfather in tears.
The next day, he urged little Annalee to look again. She peered into the nest to discover one egg had returned.
Years later, she realized her grandfather had placed a chicken egg in the nest to mend his granddaughter’s broken heart.
“I needed that sense of hope. We all do,” she said. “He fostered that for me.”
Just as Allen fosters hope for Park Avenue United Methodist Church.
The jagged bullet holes remain. The beautiful curved pews are mostly empty on Sunday. But a church once closed in fear has opened its doors to a community in need. Church members have learned to be servants, and people use the education building each weekday.
Keona Simons runs the New Tomorrows program and was so inspired by Allen, she joined Main Street United Methodist.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever met a pastor who loves people the way she does,” Simons said. “She is a living example of what a pastor should be.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.