I do not believe in miracles.

With a few pertinent questions and some rational thinking, anything and everything can be solved and explained as far as I am concerned.

Still, what happened late last year at Paces Ferry United Methodist Church defies logic. It goes against current trends and is about the closest thing to an honest to God miracle I’ve seen.

William Brown donated the land for a Methodist church in 1877, according to a historical marker outside the church’s doors. The small white clapboard building with bright red double doors was built in 1896. It sits on a verdant hilltop on Paces Ferry Road at Mount Paran Road. It is undoubtedly one of the oldest churches in Buckhead.

Beside it is a cemetery that predates the church. A white hand-painted sign with black lettering nailed to an oak tree reads “Pleasant Hill Cemetery.” That was also formerly the name of the church. It was changed to Paces Ferry United Methodist Church in 1968.

The cemetery is the final resting place of several early Buckhead families as well as Civil War soldiers who perished in a nearby battle. It also holds the grave of Brown, the original landowner. On his grave, a small tattered Confederate flag serves as a reminder of his service in the Confederate States Army.

The church also housed Pleasant Hill Private Academy. It was overseen for many years by Ida Williams, the woman for whom the Buckhead branch library is named.

In October, the church’s lay minister, Steve Unti, delivered grim news from the pulpit. After 18 years he was retiring, and the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church decided to close the church rather than find a replacement.

The last service in the 142-year-old church would be Dec. 30, he said.

The stunned members, who knew the church had come back from the brink before, mounted a campaign to save Paces Ferry United Methodist. Years ago, membership had dwindled to just two. Last fall there were about 30.

That such a historic and important institution with an active and growing congregation on solid financial footing would be closed for good angered many of the church members, neighbors and preservationists. Some fretted the property would be sold and the historic church lost forever.

Responding to the public outcry, the conference reversed course, naming the Rev. Teresa Coleman minister. She is splitting time between Paces Ferry and Collins Memorial United Methodist Church on Bolton Road, which I am willing to bet a dollar to a dime is the oldest church in Atlanta.

Further, the plight of the small church has drawn new members — young members, old members, black members, white members. There is even an effort to get the building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Miracle of miracles, the church’s rescue and resurgence is being held up as a model by the conference.

In an age where most religions and houses of worship are struggling to keep their members and attract new ones, bigger, better and louder seems to be the default. On Sundays, people flock to the 2,000-seat auditoriums with coffee bars, live electric music and flat-screen TVs.

On historic Paces Ferry Road, the one-room church with no choir, no organ and a patched hole in the roof where the stove pipe used to stick out is growing, slowly but steadily. Its service is simple and straightforward. It wouldn’t be too challenging to meet every person at a service. Try doing that in a 2,000-seat auditorium.

Paces Ferry United Methodist Church is holding a 142nd birthday celebration after services Sept. 29 and All Hallow’s Eve on The Hill Oct. 26, a benefit in the Paces neighborhood. The events are open to the public and all are welcome.

The threat of closure helped the members, the neighborhood and the community learn the rich history of the hilltop church. It now falls to the congregation to harness that energy and interest to ensure the future of Paces Ferry United Methodist Church for centuries to come.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is the president of PR South and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at tkennedy@prsouth.net.


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