The Little Church That Could
In the midst of student living, one Northside church fights to keep a separate, struggling community on its feet
Rosemary Street was deserted. Northside, the Chapel Hill neighborhood at the heart of student living, was silent, hushed with the stillness of a college town on a Sunday morning. Just before 10 a.m., less than eight hours after last call on Franklin Street, most of Northside was asleep.
But halfway down Church Street, on a corner lot with a gravel drive, four thin walls couldn’t contain the music being played within them. A few minutes before, some of Northside’s oldest residents had begun gathering out front — piling out of cars or walking up on foot. They greeted each other warmly, with hugs and handshakes, smiles and sighs.
It was Sunday morning. And it was time for church.
The small building at 605 Church St. is nondescript — white walls with chipped paint and shaded windows, quiet most days of the week.
From the outside, the Church of God of Prophecy looks no different from any other small house in Northside, marked only with a front-yard sign listing Sunday’s 11 a.m. service. Inside, furnishings are scant: 30 chairs upholstered in a light burgundy, and thin curtains that almost match.
Now surrounded by student housing, the church reflects the Northside of years past — the historically black, low-income neighborhood that frames the northern border of Chapel Hill. Once flooded with African-American families, many of whom worked at the University when the town was still segregated, the neighborhood has seen a slew of property renovations and an influx of college-aged renters in recent years, pushing rents up and driving locals elsewhere. In three decades, from 1980 to 2010, the percentage of black residents in the area dropped by more than half, according to U.S. Census data.
Yet the church remains. Once a week, every week, a handful of members and visitors gather for service and prayer, united in the name of the Lord. Like the building itself, many of them have fallen on hard times — homelessness or illness, hunger or illiteracy. But in this small space, they find solace.
In this room, for these three hours, they are not sick or tired or overworked or underpaid. They are not hungry or cold, not wanting for anything.
They are Walter and Cynthia, Roberta and Vincent, Willie and Annette and May. The makeup of the congregation changes each week, but everyone comes when they can. In here they are brothers and sisters, and they are at home.
Thanks be to God.
In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, President Johnson began escalating the war in Vietnam, and the Church of God of Prophecy opened on Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill. It was there, all those years ago, that David McMillan met Dardanella Melvin.
They married in 1968, had three kids and moved around the state. Today, 46 years later, they’re settled back in the church where they first met, a husband-and-wife duo leading an official congregation of about 25.
Dardanella’s the pastor; her husband, the deacon – and they were ordained to come to Chapel Hill more than a year ago to breathe some life and stability back into the small church with the sparse membership, which had dwindled to three. She’d pastored the Church of God for years before, though never in Chapel Hill. The way she tells it, the state overseer contacted her to replace the departing pastor without her even applying.
“But I love a challenge,” she said. “I guess they knew me, knew I loved a challenge and figured, ‘We gonna send her!’ ”
At 67, Pastor McMillan is a vibrant woman, a headstrong and passionate leader with a wide smile and a laugh that ripples through her whole body. She says she wasn’t sure just what she was getting into when she agreed to come preach in Chapel Hill. During the past year, she and her husband have worked to adapt to and connect with what she calls her diverse congregation – “not racially, but in terms of knowledge, education.”
Some attendees can’t read or write. Others can’t drive or afford cars. Individually, they’ll sometimes come to the McMillans in search of food or money for bills or rent.
“So we’re trying not only to preach to them and sing and worship — we’re trying to teach them,” she said.
Nestled within a town renowned for its scholarship, the only education, for some of these residents, comes from the church.
“Right now, we’re concerned about the people and their souls,” Pastor McMillan said, “and you can hardly do that if you’ve got hungry people. If they’re sitting here, their stomachs growling while you’re trying to preach the word…” She trails off.
“They’re learning how to take care of those things, and we’re very grateful for that.”
As Sunday service starts, Deacon McMillan sits at the keyboard with the pastor standing beside him, one hand resting on the altar and the other gripping a tambourine. The drummer, doubling as the guitarist, sits in front. Each has a microphone. There isn’t much room for music to travel in this small, carpeted room, but the sound system’s there even where other luxuries aren’t. The whole neighborhood could listen in, if it were interested.
The makeshift band turns to its audience, the deacon its unofficial ringleader. A minister of music, he’ll stretch the musical segment longer each week — 15 or 30 or 45 minutes. “Are we ready to praise God, y’all?” Pastor McMillan’s musical voice cracks, a borderline cackle. But most of her congregation is still sitting.
It’s cold in the church this morning. The woman who usually readies the building had to get teeth pulled this week, so no one was here to turn on the heat.
“If you stand up, clap your hands and sing with us, I guarantee God will bless you and warm you up,” she says. The deacon strums his fingers on the keyboard, a hint of what’s to come, and soon, everyone’s standing. “I guarantee you,” she calls again, her words a promise.
The songs are soulful, spirited, one blending into the next. Some reappear each week; others are new or specifically requested. Not everyone knows every word, but most do. They like the singing, the clapping, the swaying. It lights them up – and, this morning, warms them up, just like the pastor said.
“There we go,” she sings from the front. “Praise Lord, now we’re ready for service.”
Through their sermons and services, the McMillans are trying to teach their members that both the Lord and the government are there to help them. “We’re trying to let them know to take advantage of these resources,” Pastor McMillan said. “The Lord’s not going to tell you to go get food from the pastor, no. He’ll show you to the food banks.”
She worries that previous pastors might have indulged members’ needs, helping them out without encouraging them to change for the better. She won’t turn members down when they ask for help — “we usually help out a lot” — but she won’t let them stay complacent, either. She started telling one member, whom she picked up and drove to church every Sunday, that she couldn’t do it forever.
So he started saving up, finally bought his own car. Now he uses it to pick up other members and drive them to church each week.
“What we’re trying to do is get them to see that they can better themselves, they can do better,” she said. “You don’t have to just be what you think you always been. Once they see that you’re caring, and that you love ‘em, they latch on.”
Pastor McMillan is tireless, a maternal figure who signs emails “Be Blessed” and “Making A Difference.” She’s already retired three times, from three different jobs, though her husband still works as a truck driver. It’s this low-key schedule and steady income that allows her to devote so much time to the church — services, Bible studies, personal visits to members’ houses.
Each parish in the denomination is self-supported, funded only by what members of the congregation can give, said Clarence Laney Jr., a bishop in Durham and overseer of the district. At the Chapel Hill Church of God, what the members can give, monetarily, isn’t much.
Which makes finding a pastor willing and able to lead the church a difficult task. When the previous pastor left to pursue “other ministry opportunities” last year, Laney started looking for a pastor who could fill in on an interim basis. The district, he said, was in the midst of discussing the future of the small congregation.
Should they keep it open? Could they afford it?
Then Laney tapped Pastor McMillan, who brought big dreams and a steadfast partner, the deacon. Together they began to revitalize services and travel the neighborhood in search of new members, stopping everywhere from student homes to rehab clinics and homeless shelters.
They built up the membership to its current 25. And they began working, essentially, for free.
Members are supposed to give one-tenth of their income to the church, a tithe expected to cover utilities, expenses and the pastor’s pay. But only five or seven members do so — including, the pastor said, her and the deacon. In weeks when donations aren’t enough to cover expenses, the money comes out of what would be the pastor’s compensation.
But Pastor McMillan says she’s there to stay. She’s devoted to her congregation, calling them Church when she’s talking to them as a group, or Brother or Sister if they’re one-on-one. They call her Pastor, for the most part. One man, older than she is, calls her Mother.
“That kind of care that she gives him? He’s probably not used to it, but now he’s getting it,” the deacon says. “That’s precious, right there.
“Alright, Church,” Deacon McMillan says slowly one Sunday, catching his breath after the last song. “We’re at the point in the service where anyone can stand up and make a testimony.
“Do we have any testimonies this morning?”
The McMillans ask for these every Sunday, letting members bring up whatever they want. It’s a chance for anyone to stand, to share what they’re thanking God for this morning.
A younger woman at the front stands now, dressed from top to bottom in a bright shade of purple. “Lord, it’s been a good week,” she starts, and voices around her murmur in agreement. “Praise God,” they say.
She’s getting paid this week, she tells Church. Praise God. It’s not as much as it could be — God knows it — but she gets to make her next house payment. Praise God.
Another woman stands. Her son starts a new job this week. Praise God. He’ll now be working two jobs, and ain’t that a blessing? Praise God. He gets to work two jobs.
She sits, and the murmuring dies down. Members glance at each other – looking around, looking away. “Anyone else?” the deacon asks. “Anyone else have anything they’re thankful for?”
Finally, slowly, a third woman stands up, unsteady on her feet. She’s older, but she walks here every Sunday for church. She’s lived in Northside almost as long as she can remember.
“I just want to thank God for being here this morning,” she says, and then she pauses, thinking. She plops back down in her chair.
“That’s right, you don’t have to say much!” the deacon calls, clapping.
Because some days, that’s all we have to be thankful for.
The pastor envisions the little church on Church Street soon turning into something sprawling and beautiful, equipped with smooth pews and a booming choir. She sees a thriving Sunday School and a congregation teeming with children and families, a neighborhood meeting place blossoming on the small corner lot.
But it’s all, for now, still a vision. “Our location right now is just for people that really love the Lord,” she said.
The congregation fills the main room of the dimly lit church; the seats face a small altar and a makeshift white cross, which blends into the wall. Around the corner, a plywood foyer leads to two restrooms, outfitted with a single, bare lightbulb and sinks that sometimes work.
“If you’re looking at the building, you might just keep walking,” Pastor McMillan said. “You might be discouraged. You might feel a little ashamed.
“But God is letting us know that he doesn’t want it to stay like this.”
Since taking the helm, the McMillans have begun rustling up support for a new building on the property, promoting community outreach to build membership and starting fundraisers for extra money. The efforts are working: They’re talking about moving the piano out of the main room this week to make space for additional chairs.
But the project would require more than spare change and membership dues. All told, the deacon said the renovations would cost somewhere between $370,000 and $390,000.
The sum is daunting. Pastor McMillan said they’re hoping for donations, support from the town, anything that will help them build the vision they say God handed to them.
Within the Church of God of Prophecy network, which spans more than 90 countries on all seven continents, there are some denominational funds available that could be used for renovations, said Laney, the district overseer. But he said the church would need to be able to afford any monthly mortgage payments or long-term financing.
“But we’re believing,” the pastor said. “We’re expecting God to really bless us in a good way.”
For the McMillans, wanting to rebuild the church is less about expansion or beauty — though both play a role. They want to show their members that if their little church can change, maybe other things can change, too.
“I think some people, they’ve been in this area so long, they might have gotten settled,” Deacon McMillan said. “They may not believe that change can happen because it hasn’t happened yet.”
“They’re thinking, ‘OK, we need $370,000 – woah,’ ” the pastor continued. “They’re on fixed income, so how in the world are we gonna do this? And we’re telling them, ‘You don’t have to do it, but we gotta reach out to others to help us get it done.’
“So it’s all about change,” she said. “Change as far as opening up their eyes to see that they can have things that they’ve never had before.”
“If everyone could pull out their Bibles this morning,” the deacon says one Sunday, forgoing the gravelly microphone but raising his voice, “we’ll start our prayer.”
Some members pull books from purses and coat pockets — fingering worn covers and gilded pages, letting them fall open in their laps. They’ve all been to Bible Study this week. No one misses Wednesday night Bible Study, so they know what passages they’ll be reading.
Others sit empty-handed.
“Remember,” the deacon says gently, “we bring our own Bibles here.”
They look around, uncomfortable. Not everyone here can afford a Bible for church. Not everyone here can read one.
That’s what Bible Study is for. On Wednesdays, the McMillans sit with members and visitors to help them read different passages, sending them home with scriptures to practice and try to understand.
“I didn’t know that some of them could now read as well as they can,” Pastor McMillan says later, after most people have left. “It’s making them excited. Things are opening up for them, and they can see it.”
In Durham, Bishop Laney’s church is spacious and sunlit, with high ceilings and a swath of windows illuminating the pews that Pastor McMillan’s church lacks. Fifteen miles away, with 12 times the membership of the Chapel Hill congregation, his branch of the Church of God of Prophecy is, in a way, everything Pastor envisions for her own.
Laney says it’s harder for Chapel Hill’s church to expand because of the area that surrounds it. Rooted in Northside, the church highlights the widening divide between the neighborhood’s two populations: young, fresh-faced college students and older, low-income black residents.
“When you’re in a college town full of educated people… Well, people have a tendency to gravitate toward people who think like them,” Laney said. “The church is an excellent example of how two groups can peacefully coexist without ever really merging.”
The neighborhood makeup is something the pastor thinks about, too. With students all over the area, she wonders how the church is perceived in the community.
“We’re just trying to be friendly to everyone,” she said. “We invite them in and just let them know they’re welcome here.”
Lillie Edwards has lived in Northside for six years. At age 60, on disability leave after an aneurysm, she spends her days now reading her Bible, thinking about the pastor’s sermons and helping out with the church. “I’ll be the first one here on a Sunday morning and try to be the last one to leave,” she said.
Edwards said she loves living among students — “the more, the better.” She’ll walk her dog along the sidewalks and introduce him as people stop to pet him.
It’s the church, she said, that made it possible for her to talk to strangers like that, because she never used to know what to say. It’s the church that, instead of alienating her from the young neighborhood, has helped her become more embedded within it.
Edwards is still shy, sitting for this interview with her hands so tightly clasped in her lap that they’re sweating. But she likes to talk about what God has done for her.
“This is my life,” she said. “I do have a husband, true. But this church is my whole life, because this is where I want to be.”
“Now, all good things must come to an end, Church,” the deacon calls from the altar on Sunday. “And I guess we want to get home.”
Pastor McMillan finished her sermon almost 30 minutes ago now, but the deacon likes to hear from the audience. He’s asked for testimonies, stories, offered the microphone up to any members who wanted to lead the church in song.
But today there’s one more thing: It’s Mr. Willie's 71st birthday, and it’s time to sing to him. He’s new to the church, but he’s dedicated. He got sick a few weeks ago, and it was the church, he says, that saved him.
Everyone's happy Mr. Willie made it to church this morning. Mr. Willie most of all.
“That’s the thing about church, y’all,” the pastor says, repeating a mantra that often threads through her sermons. “You walk in feeling one way, and you walk out feeling some type of different.”
“Thanks be to God,” the church murmurs.
They nod, clap and raise their hands to the Lord. They hang on Pastor McMillan’s words. They may not all have cars or Bibles or a big, beautiful building to gather in each Sunday, but they have each other, and they have this.
And thanks be to God that things are as well as they are.