Cleveland church perseveres for an entire century

Published 12:05 am Saturday, April 1, 2023

CLEVELAND — The Rock Hill Church of Christ in Cleveland has continuously stood firm in its mission to act as a haven for the community and do whatever it can to help those in need.

On May 13, the congregation is commemorating its 100-year anniversary by hosting a celebration that is free for anyone to join. How they got to be such a local institution tells the story of a group of people who never wavered from what they believed was right.

Denon Hogue is the current minister at Rock Hill. He has been going to the church for his entire life thanks to his great-great grandfather being instrumental in its establishment.

In 1922, a man named Charlie Nelson came to Cleveland to preach to a church. When he wanted to bring Black people into the church; they refused him, but allowed them to have a tent meeting outside of their building. Over time, enough people came to hear Nelson preach that they began to meet at the home of a man named George Stringer.

As their congregation continued to increase, they started to convene at an all Black school, where the church is located now. The school was called Rock Hill School and that is how the church got its name. Hogue’s great-great grandfather, George Simmons, was the one who donated his land to the church so they would be able to build their own structure there. Some of the members were carpenters and they built the first official Rock Hill Church in 1924.

Rock Hill’s current building was erected in the 1960s. In order for this to happen, some of the people who belonged to the congregation had to be willing to possibly give up their homes.

“We’re talking about a time when Black people as we know it weren’t able to borrow money. Banks, especially in the South, didn’t really lend to Black people like that. They had to put up their whole property, put everything at stake, just to get a loan to build something like a church,” Hogue said. “To me, it’s commendable. I don’t know if I would put my house and my life on the line like that. I would hope that I could do that, but I think it’s a tremendous thing.”

Hogue has been minister since 2019, but he also works as a teacher’s assistant at West Rowan High School and owns and operates a barbershop when he’s not preaching on Sundays. “I try to guide as much as I possibly can within the parameters that I have,” Hogue said.

Rock Hill has a clothing project and a food pantry that is always accepting donations. A few times a year they host gospel meetings so people can get together to worship. Hogue says when he was younger the congregation had 90-120 people, pre-COVID it was 60-70, and now it’s in the 40s. The church is mostly elderly with Hogue describing it as “a close, family-oriented congregation.” Their goal is to slowly re-build those earlier figures.

“We’re getting back to those things because obviously COVID crippled us a lot. It really put handcuffs on a lot of things we were doing.”

Hogue has been connected to Rock Hill since before he was born. He thinks back over all the sacrifices people like Charlie Nelson and the Stringer family made so the church can still be a memento of determination after a 100 years. He’s hoping their message can inspire others in the future so that Rock Hill can thrive for another 100 years.

“It really is humbling. It put things in a way where a whole other level of respect was put on what they did. We’re talking about a time when things weren’t really easy for Black people to navigate and to live in abundance. To have the good things that we all have now,” Hogue said. “To realize that they established something when that was not realistic, it really does speak to how far we’ve come.”