First Congregational Church, or First Congo as it’s affectionately known, is a big presence in Cooper-Young — socially as well as architecturally. Its diversity, along with its emphasis on art and social justice and partnership, reflect the character of Cooper-Young, but the church itself didn’t grow up here. Founded in the Civil War era, First Congo was first known as Strangers Congregational Church, supporting women preachers and objecting to slavery — uncommon stances in the nineteenth-century South.
First Congo has carried that sense of social justice into the twenty-first century, pastored for nearly 30 years by the Reverend Cheryl Cornish, a native Nebraskan with a divinity degree from Yale. She had never been in Memphis before she decided to leave a pastorate in rural Missouri in 1988. “This congregation really drew me to Memphis.”
When she arrived, the congregation numbered around 25 on a typical Sunday, and met in Central Gardens. Within a few years, the church grew, and outgrew; at the same time, the Greater Imani Church was outgrowing its space in Cooper-Young — three buildings covering 83,000 square feet, which would become First Congo’s home.
“We hadn’t pictured such a huge space,” says Cornish. “We realized there were a lot of opportunities.”
Cooper-Young’s personality and sense of identity and collaboration made those opportunities even more apparent. “It seemed like the kind of neighborhood where we could really make a difference, where we could be engaged with the community.”
Today, the church houses 30 different community partnerships. First Congo is home to Voices of the South’s black box theater, Roots Urban Farm Academy, a clothes closet, a global fair trade store, a counseling center, Memphis Area Gay Youth, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, and classes in dance, music, midwifery, and fencing.
The Revolutions Bicycle Cooperative was started 15 years ago here, rehabbing, selling, and renting bikes. Its staff and volunteers work with kids at Peabody Elementary and senior citizens in Overton Park.
A typical Sunday service in the bright sanctuary, with its old windows, labyrinth, and a beautiful wood altar, designed to feel like a “kitchen table,” welcomes 225 to 250 parishioners, 270 on a big Sunday.
That sanctuary has hosted the Memphis Symphony, the Memphis Ballet, and musicians from Stax Music Academy. September’s Cooper-Young Festival sets up food trucks, vendors, and music in the church’s parking lot.
Upstairs is a hostel with bunk beds, a kitchen, and art. Houseplants and armchairs fill the wing’s nooks and crannies. The hostel brings in people from all over the world, from “58 countries in six months,” says staffer Danny Grubbs, a Memphis native.
Downstairs, the church serves lunch to 50 to 60 people every day. “Anyone can eat,” says Cornish. “We really want it to be a gathering place.”