While they are excited to be celebrating their 225th anniversary on August 12, they are equally enthusiastic about all that God is calling them to do. “As we celebrate and remember, we also give God thanks for the ministry that is being done now, and are excited to see where God is calling us for the future,” said Pastor Mary Louise Sitton.
Established in 1793, Immanuel Lutheran Church is the oldest Lutheran congregation in Tennessee. The current sanctuary was built in 1903 with bricks that were made less than a mile from the church. The bell was made in Belgium in 1863 and is still rung proudly every Sunday. Many of the current members are second, third and even fourth generations of worshipers.
“Immanuel is proud of its heritage and strong foundation of faith built by previous generations,” said Pastor Mary Louise.
From Hickory, North Carolina, she came to Immanuel over two years ago. To her amazement, she soon discovered that the first pastor of Immanuel, Adam Miller, was a distant relative. “I knew I was in the right place,” she said.
Blountville resident Randy Smith has been a member of Immanuel for 41 years. Randy said that he is grateful for the way the church reaches out to so many people.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to serve in the community. It’s challenging and exciting to try to keep up with God in all this,” he said.
The ministries of Immanuel are varied and unique. For example, they created a space in their cemetery for the cremated remains of homeless people who have no one to claim them for burial. Partnering with the Shades of Grace United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Immanuel holds a yearly interment service for the deceased. They also donate around 12 gallons of milk weekly and one meal per quarter to the Shades of Grace homeless ministry which provides a Sunday afternoon meal each week.
Immanuel provides bottled water and snacks for family waiting rooms at the Bristol Regional Medical Center, Holston Valley Medical Center and Indian Path Hospital. The church also donates clothing such as loose-fitting shirts, pants and undergarments to be used in the emergency room at Bristol Regional Medical Center for people who need clothes to wear home.
Other ministries of Immanuel include providing snacks for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Sullivan County; providing meals for the summer school program at Sullivan Central High School; donating food baskets throughout the year and helping other churches to provide Thanksgiving meals for Central Heights Elementary School students and their families; offering their church building as an emergency shelter for the local elementary school and Red Cross; sponsoring a back-to-school cookout for Sullivan County school personnel; participating in the World Day of Prayer event at the courthouse; providing personal care kits and quilts for the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Disaster Relief; designating money each month for various non-profit organizations; and generally offering assistance in the community when needs are made known.
How does one small congregation accomplish so much?
“It’s not anything we do, it’s God working through us,” explained Pastor Mary Louise. “We just want to show the love of Christ in everything we do,” she added.
Immanuel members also credit their pastor for much of the enthusiasm and passion the church has for service. “Pastor Mary Louise is a fireball - we love her to death,” said Randy. “She’s like the spark plug that keeps us moving forward.”
Kyle and Georgia Morrell of Bristol became members of Immanuel in 1950. Kyle is a fourth-generation member and values his church heritage. “I appreciate my church heritage and am thankful that how my parents and grandparents lived influenced me to remain faithful to the church and to God,” he said.
With gratitude and respect for the rich heritage and history of Immanuel Lutheran Church, the congregation presses forward to seek even more ministry opportunities. Pastor Mary Louise invites the community to partner with them as they reach out to those in need throughout the Tri-Cities area.
“We are not a large congregation, but we are active and we partner with others to do ‘God’s work. Our hands,’” she said, using the ELCA slogan.
For more information on partnering with Immanuel in their ministries, call (423) 323-8933. The public is also welcome to join them at their special anniversary service on Sunday, August 12 at 11 a.m. at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 191 Central Heights Road, in Blountville.