By Andrea Cournoyer and John Michael Tarleton
One would be hard pressed to spend much time in Birmingham’s Woodlawn community and not have an encounter with Grace Episcopal Church whether through its members, its many community services, or the church itself. With a rich history in the city and community, Grace Church has made a name for itself through inclusion, diversity, hospitality, and service. A visitor of the church would see these four pillars by the time the first service has ended.
Grace Episcopal Church has been well established in the community of Woodlawn since the late nineteenth century, and even though the majority of their members do not belong to the same race as most people in the immediate neighborhood area today, the church has committed to grow and to provide for all people. The church may have a predominately White congregation, but the congregation has advocated for the majority African American population as well as for the area’s quickly growing Hispanic population.
From its very beginning of their church, Grace has tried to fill a hole it felt was evident in its area. It started with a desire to pour into and teach the word to those who were a part of the industrial boom that drew people to Birmingham and Woodlawn in the 1880s. It was initially established as a mission to Woodlawn’s White middle-class community in 1889. The first church was built the following year on the same piece of land on which the current church now stands. Only in the following year, 1891, was the municipality of Woodlawn formally incorporated.
Initially known as Calvary, this Episcopal mission later renamed itself Grace and was admitted to the Diocese of Alabama as a self-supporting parish in 1902. Its current sandstone church building was designed by local architect James E. Green and hosted its first service on October 9, 1927 (Schnorrenberg 1991, 9-10). The church came to embrace the Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Episcopal Church. As such it combined careful solemn worship services with a focus on works and charity. In 1982 the church began its first outreach program to help grow and transform the Woodlawn community. Since that date, the parish has been committed to this mission has not looked back.
Services and Resources Provided
When looking at the role this church has played on the community it finds itself in, it is critical to note its long past in the neighborhood itself and how it has become such a primary player in the push to revitalize Woodlawn. The community has long been below the national average in income and education, and this has led to an increased need in certain services and resources (The Association of Religion Data Archives, 2022). From the beginning of the 1980s, the church has gone above and beyond in meeting this need. The ministries it started that have developed into independent organizations include Interfaith Hospitality House which began in 1981 and St. Benedict’s House (Three Hots & A Cot) which started in 2010. Both of these programs looked to fill the need for shelters in Woodlawn because of the growing number of homeless people who live there. A third organization that quickly outgrew Grace is the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!). This group fights for the needs of the Hispanic population in the area and advocates against the inequalities and injustices Hispanics often face in the workforce or when trying to find homes. Lastly, Grace Episcopal Church started 55th Place Community Thrift Store. It has continued to provide for the city of Birmingham in general for over thirty years.
Today, the church continues to provide through a number of different organizations and initiatives. These include the Grace Food Pantry and Grace Clothes Closet both of which look to provide resources for many of the poverty stricken in the area. Community Kitchens is a similar initiative started by the church in 1980. It serves lunch every day of the year and really showcases the church’s desire to be hospitable by providing for all who come. Grace Works focuses on adolescents and gives them an opportunity to learn and grow in an educational setting and safe environment (Grace Episcopal Woodlawn, 2022). All of these programs demonstrate the church’s need to help those in the area regardless of religious background, racial orientation, or social status.
Clearly, Grace Episcopal Church cares and provides for those in their community. The church’s long history enables it to continue to be a part of an area that needs outreach programs like the ones mentioned above. The people of the church are ingrained into the town. They read and hear about their church’s four values of diversity, inclusion, hospitality, and service, and they know they cannot just think about these things but instead they must initiate a change through action themselves. The church has built a relationship with those in Woodlawn by consistently loving them throughout its extensive past. No matter a person’s race, ethnicity or job title, theya are welcome at Grace. The African American, Spanish-speaking, and homeless populations of the area have benefited greatly from the many institutions put in place by the church, but the members of the church would tell you they have gained even more from getting to know and provide hope for any who come to them in need.
Grace Episcopal Church
Location: 5712 1st Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35212
Current church building erected: 1927
Affiliation: The Episcopal Church
Association of Religion Data Archives, 2022. “Community Profile.” Accessed October 25, 2022. https://www.thearda.com/us-religion/cpb?y=3967256.6722157192&x=-9657484.082753 22&b=2&denom=.
Grace Episcopal Church, 2022. “Serve.” Accessed October 26, 2022. https://gracechurch woodlawn.org/outreach/.
Schnorrenberg, John M. 1999. “Grace Episcopal Church, Woodlawn.” In Walking Tours of Birmingham Churches Conducted from 1990 to 1999, by Janice Ford-Freeman and John M. Schnorrenberg, 9-10. Birmingham: University of Alabama at Birmingham, Dept. of Art and Art History.
Andrea Cournoyer ’23 and John Michael Tarleton ’23 were students in Race and Religion in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2022.
Published April 5, 2023.