Memphis Rotary Club moves to historic Clayborn Temple

Memphis Rotary Club moves to historic Clayborn Temple

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - "Depart to Serve" are the words you see above a doorway when exiting Clayborn Temple, the historic 1893 building now under renovation just south of FedExForum in Downtown Memphis.

"Service above self" is the motto of Rotary International, the world's largest humanitarian service organization.

Now the Memphis Rotary Club and Clayborn Temple are uniting in a spirit of service to the local community and the world.

Memphis Rotary announced Wednesday that it will begin meeting in the restored sanctuary at Clayborn Temple each Tuesday at noon starting in September 2017.

"We think we're sending a message to the community that we're committed to serving Memphis, and we're committed to making Memphis a better place," said Pierre Landaiche, President of the Memphis Cook Convention Center and a Rotary member.

"We made the change because we want to help celebrate the reopening of Clayborn Temple and draw attention to its importance in the history of civil rights," said Arthur Oliver, current President of the Rotary Club of Memphis. "This is a once in a lifetime event to be able to participate in something like this."

Clayborn Temple took center stage in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike as a meeting place and starting point for strikers to assemble before their solidarity marches. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One dream is to have Clayborn Temple ready for the crowds expected in spring 2018 as the world commemorates the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.

Dr. King came to Memphis in 1968 at the invitation of pastors and the city's striking sanitation workers.

The strikers' "I Am a Man" signs were first distributed at Clayborn Temple. Now architects and city planners are designing "I AM A MAN Memorial Plaza" that will be installed across from Clayborn Temple at Hernando Street and East Pontotoc Avenue.

"We're thrilled to have the Rotary Club join us in helping to restore this sacred site in Memphis," said Rob Thompson, project leader of Clayborn Reborn, the non-profit that has tackled the massive restoration effort. "To have Rotary lock arms with us and say we want to help see Clayborn Temple restored as we're honoring history, it's a shot in the arm."

Clayborn Temple is now home to the Downtown Church on Sunday mornings, a film series, and a community events schedule that's just starting to evolve.

"From a redevelopment standpoint, we're early in the process. It's a multi-year process," Thompson said.

Thompson and Wiseacre Brewery owner Frank Smith has devoted countless hours to getting the church building ready for the community to embrace.

"We are working hard to preserve Clayborn Temple and maintain it as a symbol of economic justice and civil rights. Memphis Rotary's commitment to move its meetings here is huge for us," Smith said.

Many Rotarians expressed delight at the move from the University Club on Central Avenue at Lamar Avenue.

"This is a historic structure that ought to be saved," said John Elkington of Clayborn Temple.

Elkington was the key player in the redevelopment of Beale Street in the 1980s.

The longtime Rotarian, said, "it took a lot for this club to move out of the confines of the University Club to say to this community, 'you know we all have got to roll up our sleeves to change this community and we've got to make it better.' I think this gives us the opportunity to do that."

Dr. LaSonya Harris-Hall, a Rotarian who helps lead Graduate Memphis, says the move to Clayborn Temple will send the community a powerful message.

"I think that Memphis --- because we are so diverse --- this move will translate into one that says that we are looking forward, that we are progressive in our thinking, that we're embracing our differences. This is truly symbolic of what that means," Dr. Harris-Hall said.

"We're always looking for another way to serve the community, we think this does that," said Rotary member Landaiche. A former Memphis Rotary President, Landaiche said, "we're going to partner with Clayborn Temple in trying to bring it back."

Clayborn Temple's Romanesque revival architecture is a thing of beauty. It's a rectangular building outside.

"But when you step into the sanctuary, you instantly have the sensation you're in a round room," Thompson said. This was achieved by positioning the chancel and stage in one corner and crafting a round balcony through the upper regions of the space. "But even as you look up and see how the ceiling radiated out, these are different pieces of the intentionality of the architects to create a very different, unique experience in the room."

After the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. King's assassination, Clayborn Temple will become a key stop among visitors celebrating Dr. King's legacy along with students of the civil rights movement.

Memphis Rotary held two meetings inside Clayborn Temple to explore the space and imagine the possibilities.

The church had been shuttered for a quarter century and was crumbling when Smith, Thompson, and Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. bought it.

Originally opening on Jan. 1, 1893, it was the third location of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis now located at Poplar Avenue and South Goodlett Street.

Thompson welcomed Rotarians to the church for the first time on Feb. 28, 2017 and explained that upon its opening, it was the largest church building south of the Ohio River.

"To build a church of this size would have been unheard of in the 1890s, seating nearly 1000 people," Thompson said.

Memphians "walked to church or rode a horse back in those days. The stained glass windows were the talk of the town," Thompson said.

It had a 120-foot spire on top that Thompson and Smith hope to replace one day.

An enormous old church organ with gigantic pipes adorn one wall of the sanctuary.

During World War II when the federal government imposed gasoline rationing, Thompson says Second Presbyterian lost members as people were unable to get to the Downtown location.

The church was sold in 1949 to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

The new congregation renamed the building after its bishop, Jim Clayborn.

Dr. King visited the building several times during the sanitation workers strike, but after the tumultuous late 1960s and the departure of so many from Downtown Memphis, Clayborn Temple began a period of decline.

The AME shuttered the church, and it sat neglected for more than 25 years.

Now bursting with life and a new mission, Rotarian and educator Dr. LaSonya Harris-Hall sees the club's move to Clayborn Temple as a victory for everyone in Memphis.

"This is truly symbolic and hopefully will speak to our nation that Memphis is a leader not necessarily looking to our past but to the future and building on that past," Harris-Hall said.

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