By Bryan Cisler
After more than 100 years, today (June 27) was the final service for Grand Avenue Temple – a Methodist church in downtown Kansas City at Ninth and Grand Avenue. I wasn’t a member there but I decided to attend the last service.
I hung around afterwards and talked to some of the members, most of them in their 70s and 80s about their memories of the church. I didn’t have a notebook to write everything down so I tried to remember their stories the best I could.
It has such a fascinating history.
There is the first half of its existence when they were a powerhouse downtown church, and the second half when the church was physically deteriorating, constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, but powering on to serve the homeless and anyone coming in off the streets.
As I was walking out the doors for the last time, I felt like I had to write an obit for it and share some of the stories that were told to me.
I will cover the first half of the church’s history quickly.
The current building opened in 1912. At that time, downtown Kansas City was booming and so was the church. It was built at a high cost and had a beautiful sanctuary that included one of the finest organs in the country.
People would travel from all over the country to attend concerts at Grand Avenue Temple. Sunday morning services were packed.
They would get a sizable crowd just from the business travelers who were staying in the nice downtown Kansas City hotels looking for a church to attend.
They hosted major conferences, influential speakers, and the top musicians would play at Grand Avenue Temple. It was called the “Mother Church of Methodism in Kansas City.”
As the decades went on though the church began to show its age. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, people started to flee downtown for the suburbs and the church lost a lot of its members. The building started to fall into disrepair.
At that time downtown just wasn’t a place people wanted to live or go for entertainment. It was during this time though I started to hear some of the more inspiring stories from the church’s history.
A lot of the church’s remaining members were senior citizens who lived in poverty at the apartment complexes that were nearby.
I talked with one of the pastors who was there in the 1970s, and he told me story after story how this once powerful church which had faded from prominence had cared for and loved these people.
There was one elderly man, who the pastor said lived a hermit lifestyle in one of the crumbling apartment complexes close to the church. The man lived alone with 12 cats and had crippling social anxiety.
The only nice thing he owned was a top of the line suit that he would wear to church every Sunday. He eventually built up enough courage to invite the pastor over to dinner. It was a major breakthrough for the man.
The church was the one place this man felt like he belonged.
That is just one of many members he told me about. The church invited people from a blighted downtown who thought they were outcasts and made them feel special.
They were one of the few churches that welcomed and accepted the LGBTQ community during a time when that wasn’t really common among churches.
In the 1980’s they took their outreach a step further. They had even fewer members, downtown was in rougher shape, and the church needed even more work done to it.
One winter night some women were having a potluck dinner and realized that they had cooked too much food. They decided to invite some of the homeless who were hanging out nearby to join them for dinner.
It was like a lightbulb came on for them. They decided that their purpose as a church was to minister to the homeless or anybody in need.
They opened their church up as a shelter, served food every week, gave away clothes every Saturday, and partnered with UMKC to offer health clinics.
When Church of the Resurrection started partnering with them around 10 years ago, I volunteered for a short time in the clothing ministry and I can tell you first hand the impact it had on people.
There was a man named Perry that would come through our line every week. It was such a loving and welcoming environment that you started to see a change in him. He started to have more confidence in himself.
It was 2012 when the MLB All Star Game came to Kansas City and the city created additional jobs to pick up trash along the highways. He came in beaming one day because he had gotten one of those jobs.
He said it was the first honest job he had ever gotten. He was so proud and we all celebrated with him. It was just a really cool moment.
As I was talking with the different members, there was an elderly couple that had to be in their mid to late 80s and their story really stuck with me.
In addition to the normal items such as food and clothing they would give away each week, the wife would crochet baskets to give to the homeless and the husband makes little crosses out of wood that he finds that he gives away.
They told me in great detail how much work they put into making these items. I asked them why they did this. The man said he grew up during the depression and his family lived in poverty.
Even though his church he belonged to didn’t have a lot of resources, the members scraped together what they had so his family could make it another week. He said they showed him the love of God by doing that and he wanted to pass it on to the members of Grand Avenue Temple.
The COVID shutdown hit Grand Avenue Temple hard and forced it to close for good. Nobody I talked with seemed sure what was going to happen to the church.
It could get bought by another church or maybe the space might be used for something completely different. Either way, it had a heck of a run. It was a neat old church. RIP Grand Avenue Temple.
Bryan Cisler is an Application Developer at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project.
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Great story and sad to see such an amazing congregation leave Downtown. Hopefully the building itself will be repurposed and once again become a beacon of hope and solace in Downtown.
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