A small church in the heart of Joplin will celebrate its centennial next weekend.

First launched on May 21, 1921 — when members initially met inside the living room of their pastor’s Joplin home — the Joplin First Church of the Nazarene has always had a physical presence in Joplin.

But as any church congregation member will tell you, a church’s merits shouldn’t be based on a physical presence alone, be it someone’s home or an actual brick and mortar building.

“It’s the congregation that makes the church. … The church isn’t the building,” said Rick Evans, who serves as both the church’s secretary and historian.

A successful church, he continued, should be graded by what it does for the community surrounding it.

“We try and keep the congregation aware of the needs of the people they come in contact with in the community,” he said. “This is something that has been a tradition from the start for (the church).”

Evans calls it “100 years of caring for others.” For example, church members distribute boxes of food to 80 to 85 local residents — enough to feed a family of four — every other Saturday morning in the church’s parking lot at 2120 Utica St. Periodically, inside the church’s general purpose room, secondhand clothes, tools, electronics and other odds and ends — items donated to the church — will be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis to those in need. If someone can only spare a nickel for a blouse or a pair of shoes, so be it.

In the aftermath of the Joplin tornado, 2,500 men and women volunteering to rebuild the community stayed at the church in 2011 and 2012. Before each school year, members hand out backpacks filled with school supplies. and during Third Thursday events, they hand out free water.

“We are here for the community,” Evans said. “The (Nazarene) denominational roots (ensure) we work with the people of the community, the outcast, the downtrodden. We have always been involved with other churches in the area, allowing them to use our facility as they needed.”

Too many times to count, however, the church has endured some pretty lean moments over the past 10 decades. But at the darkest moments, Evans said, there was always the light.

Take March 1933, for example: During the Great Depression, the original church building, then located at 1201 Central St., was nearly lost due to the financial crush gripping the country and its cities, Evans said. The church faced foreclosure due to $400 in back payments, but the congregation with the help of other Joplin residents managed to scrape up enough cash to keep the church open and operating.

“There have been other adversities along the way, but there have also been some great blessings that we have been able to share with the community,” Evans said. “Someone is watching over (us) and ensuring we succeed. It’s like divine intervention.”

History of the church

In April 1921, a pastor from St. Louis and a couple from Kentucky came to Joplin looking to start a church. They began having camp meetings at the home of the Rev. Deboard at Michigan and Hill streets, Evans said.

On May 21 of that year, with 26 charter members, the Joplin First Church of the Nazarene was organized, with the first church building built in 1925 at 1201 Central St. in East Town.

In 1962, the congregation began outgrowing the old church building. At the time, the pastor Joe Jones reached out to his next-door neighbor Dale Holly, the owner of Dale’s Barbershop on historic Route 66. Holly had five residential tracts of land southwest of the Utica and Euclid intersection across from his shop. The church purchased all five tracts for $10,000 — four for the church building and the fifth for the parsonage.

On Sept. 8, 1963 — after the congregation met for nearly a year at the Joplin Boy’s Club building — the present-day sanctuary opened. In 1979, a 6,250-square-foot expansion followed.

The church’s centennial celebration will begin at 9:15 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, with coffee and donuts. At 10:45 a.m., a service will begin featuring speaker Phil Rhodes, the church district superintendent. Following the service, there will be a catered luncheon for those who wish to attend, Evans said. To RSVP for the lunch, call the church office at 417-623-3455 and leave your name and number by Wednesday, Sept. 15.

“At 2 p.m. we will will have a reflection touching on our past for those who couldn’t make it to the early service,” followed by the good deeds the church is doing today.

“We are going with the butterfly theme for our vision, ‘New Beginnings,’” he said. “The story of the butterfly people really set well with us. We purchased two (of the iconic sculptures) with our own personal design for the church yard for our Restore Joplin involvement and our vision for the future.”

Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.

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