In the mid-1970s, the congregation of Hales Chapel United Methodist Church in Gate City, Va., was facing the possibility of having to close its doors.
For many years, after joining the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church in the 1960s, Hales Chapel was part of a two-charge church, sharing a pastor with another church.
“There was even a period of time when we didn’t have a preacher. We were approached about closing our doors or joining with another church. But we fought. We fought hard to keep our heritage,” said James Wood, a long-time member of Hales Chapel.
Hales Chapel did not close its doors and, today, is the only predominantly African-American church in the Big Stone Gap District of the Holston Conference. It has 50 members with an average weekly attendance in the 40s. Hales Chapel will celebrate its 111th anniversary this year.
The earliest beginnings of Hales Chapel date back to the early 1900s. Before being located at the present location on Manville Road in Gate City, the congregation worshiped in an area located in the far corner of the now Prospect Cemetery, also on Manville Road. This meeting place was used as the Prospect School during the week and for worship on Sundays.
Many pastors have served at Hales Chapel — most of them white. Steve Templeton, who retired as an assistant chief with the Bristol, Tenn., Police Department after 34 years of service, is in his 11th year as pastor of the church. He says, to an outsider, it may seem unusual being a white pastor at a predominately black church. But, he adds, it has never been an issue for him.
“It was a surprise, yes. But I was welcomed from the first minute I walked in here and I have loved them so much. Color has never been an issue for me, and, if it were to anybody else here in the church, I’ve never heard about it,” Templeton said.
Wood serves as the church treasurer and choir director and has been a member of Hales Chapel for almost 60 years.
“Steve being white, it’s not an issue for us either. He wouldn’t have been here for 11 years if it was. We’re able to love you regardless of what color you are. Color is not an issue in this church,” Wood said. “If we had waited on a black preacher, our doors would’ve been closed a long time ago. The doors of this church know no color.”
In fact, Templeton’s value as pastor was shown to him by the congregation last year.
Templeton, who has battled numerous health problems in recent years, spent three months in the hospital last year. After he recovered and returned to Hales Chapel in September, Templeton learned members of his congregation had installed a wheelchair ramp leading to the pulpit area.
“This is the kind of love we have for this guy right here,” said Wood, pointing to the ramp. “We knew he was going to have some limitations when he came back to us and we didn’t want those limitations to stop him from being able to share the Word.”
Although Hales Chapel is considered to be an African-American church, Templeton points out there are also a number of white folks as well as mixed-race families who worship at Hales Chapel.
“We’ve got lily white to quite dark and no one pays any attention to that. I think the diversity has strengthened us, rather than divided us. We know when we get to heaven, there’s not going to be black or white. We may be chartreuse green. We’re going to be whatever the Lord is. He may have a color we’ve never seen. We might as well get used to different colors down here,” he said.
Services at Hales Chapel are spirit-filled and dynamic, often lasting well past noon, Wood and Templeton both s a y.
“We worship in a different manner [than other Methodist churches]. Some people probably think we’re crazy,” Wood said. “This is why the elderly people that were here during [the 1970s] fought so hard to stay open. And I’m so thankful that they did. We’re able to keep this, to keep what we know and what we believe. We believe if you feel the Spirit, let it be known. We’re not going to run you out the door if you raise your hands and say ‘Amen.’”
“If the Lord shows up to our services, I like it. I get happy and so do these other spirit-filled believers. There are services here that God moves in on and we don’t want to leave. I tell them that’s OK. We’ll just send out for bologna sandwiches for lunch,” Templeton jokes.
Hales Chapel has a growing and active youth group involved in several different outreach projects, including singing at area churches and regular visits to the Nova Health and Rehab Center (formerly the Brian Center) in Weber City, Va.
“They go to Nova at least once a month now,” Wood said. “Earlier this month, they gave a Valentine’s party for the residents.”
Hales Chapel also hosts a number of open dinners for the community throughout the year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and a community dinner the first Sunday of each month.
Other community outreach events include a fall festival or back-to-school event, vacation Bible school and a yearly revival.
Hales Chapel also hosts a Black History program each February.
“Black History is not really something that’s taught in schools around here,” Wood said. “When I was in school, I was in an all-black high school. We had Black History Week at that time, when it first started. This was when we learned a lot about our black history. Our kids today, they don’t know a lot about our history. You need to know your history and where you came from. Some people think because we do black history it’s only about remembering slavery. Slavery was a fact. It was something that took place. But what we try to do is anything during this particular time just to remind our young people of who they are and that, the bottom line is, they do have value.”
Templeton points out that many times Hales Chapel’s Black History Month programs celebrate what has happened since the end of slavery.
“They learn about these people who had value, that they contributed to, not just black history, but American or world history with brilliant scientists, generals, Nobel Prize winners and, now, even a president. We want our young people to know that they can accomplish anything,” Templeton said.
Templeton says Hales Chapel is known throughout the community as a praying church.
“We get so many prayer requests from folks outside our church, maybe from an acquaintance of someone in our church. We’ve seen prayer work. We’ve seen cancer cured and people, who were by a doctor’s accounts, supposed to die that didn’t. We’ve seen the power of prayer,” he said.
Templeton hopes Hales Chapel’s legacy will be that it was a church that never wavered from the truth of the Word of God.
“There’s a lot of watering down of the Word just to accommodate people. The highest authority that we have is the Word of God and that’s what we have here. We’re a loving church and a friendly church. A person who comes in wearing a $1,000 suit will be just as welcome and will feel just as comfortable as someone who comes in wearing flannel pajamas. It makes no difference to us,” Templeton said.
“This little church has been a beacon up on this hill for a lot of years, and we want to keep it going. Hopefully, somebody will pick up the banner one day and carry on,” Wood said.
Sunday school at Hales Chapel begins at 10:15 a.m. with worship services at 11 a.m. The church is located at 604 Manville Road in Gate City, Va.
This year’s Black History program, “Break Every Chain,” begins at 4 p.m., today at the church. Everyone is welcome.