By Olivia Easterling and Carson Knauff
Woodlawn United Methodist Church is an epitome of the history of Birmingham and the Woodlawn community. In its over 140-year history, Woodlawn UMC has experienced much change, as has its neighborhood. Founded in a racially segregated society, the congregation journeyed through desegregation to adopting a mission of inclusion. Woodlawn UMC is a picture of resilient perseverance over time.
While the identity of a congregation gradually evolves and changes through the years, we suggest understanding Woodlawn United Methodist Church as having had two lives. Each can be associated with one of the three buildings it has erected and occupied.
After it was founded in 1887, Woodlawn UMC built its first church, a wooden carpenter Gothic structure, on Georgia Road. The congregation grew in size here and in 1909 it laid the cornerstone for a larger limestone auditorium church on First Avenue North (by then Woodlawn’s main street). Its tall tower marked the church as a major community institution and over the years it expanded into additional brick education buildings to the north. One hundred years later, in 2009, a fire forced the congregation to abandon the historic sanctuary and build a new multi-purpose sanctuary building on 54th Street North, adjoining the education buildings. The First Avenue North building was a historic symbol of Birmingham holding rich stories that encapsulate several famous events that have happened in Birmingham. Its new building speaks less about the past and more about present impact of the congregation.
From Segregation to Inclusion
Woodlawn UMC was founded as a congregation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Alabama’s largest Methodist denomination) in 1887. This Southern Methodists organized this denomination in 1845 because they supported slavery. The Methodist congregation was the second White church founded in Woodlawn. Since the first, Woodlawn Baptist Church, moved to Liberty Park in the 1990s, Woodlawn UMC remains as the oldest. As a “main street” congregation in one of Birmingham’s most important neighborhoods, the church was intimately involved in Birmingham’s history. In the 1950s and 1960s one of its best known members was Bull Connor (Figure 2), the infamous Birmingham Police Commissioner member (Bhamwiki). Author William A. Nunnelley deems him “the quintessential segregationist” (Nunnelley 1991, 4).
Yet, from 1953 to 1962, the church was pastored by the Rev. John Rutland, a Methodist minister whose support for civil rights led the KKK to burn a cross on his front lawn. While neighboring churches relocated (such as Woodlawn Christian in 1967 and Woodlawn Presbyterian in 1971), Woodlawn UMC stayed put, but it also suffered from disorder in the neighborhood, such as a knife attack that killed a choir member in 1983.
Today, Woodlawn UMC is so dedicated to love and inclusion that the top website banner says this: “No matter who you are, where you come from or where you are going. No matter what you believe or doubt. No matter who you love. God loves you and you are welcome here! YES, we really mean that” (WoodlawnBham). This message began long before the 2009 fire. Indeed the fire occurred as Woodlawn was hosting a worship service by Bethel Metropolitan Community Church, a congregation founded by gay and lesbian Christians. But the two buildings are helpful in understanding the congregation’s transition from a major community institution to a more modern community pursuing a mission of inclusion.
Woodlawn UMC is one of the few majority White churches in Woodlawn that did not flee for the suburbs of Birmingham amidst desegregation. In an interview with the Birmingham News, one of the first African American teachers at Woodlawn High School, described a moment of opportunity in the early 1970s. A well equipped school, educated students from all races. But, the News reported she saw many of the schools good programs “dry up as white families took their tax dollars outside city limits.” (Hammontree 2015). While other congregations followed those families. Woodlawn United Methodist and Grace Episcopal stayed put.
Location and Architectural Context
Since 2011, Woodlawn United Methodist Church has been in their new building located on 54th Street North. This newly built worship space was built in partnership with Cornerstone Schools of Alabama which operates its elementary school in the church’s education buildings. Thus the new space includes a cafeteria, gymnasium, and many classrooms. Just south of where Interstate 20 branches off to start Interstate 59 and north of First Avenue North, the Woodlawn UMC church building is truly in the heart of the Woodlawn area.
The external architecture of the building is a modernized classic style with hints of the Romanesque and Gothic traditions. From the front view, the church displays a mixture of white limestone facing and red brick walls. The minimal number and size of windows nods to the traditional Romanesque style, while the use of a pointed arch to frame a stained glass window is reminiscent of the Gothic style. On the left side of the building where the sanctuary is located, the external architecture is formal and classical; on the right side where the classrooms are found, the building is structured with simple and modern lines. The parking lot is located in front of the entrance and holds approximately thirty cars. Adjacent to the parking lot, there is a fenced garden space to be enjoyed.
The internal architecture of the sanctuary is beautifully lined with pews and centered by a single stained glass window. Upon entrance through doors on the side of the sanctuary, one is welcomed by approximately fourteen wooden pews spread across the space which is organized with a greater width than depth in relation to the front stage. Central to the worship space are an altar and a pulpit, with an organ and seats for the choir found behind. The overall feeling conveyed by the architecture is congruent with the feeling of the congregation: a welcoming and reverent simplicity.
Sunday Service and Ministry
Woodlawn UMC holds a single, one-hour service each Sunday morning beginning at 11:05. At the service we attended on October 23, 2022, we were greeted warmly by several members of the congregation, including Pastor Emily Freeman Penfield. With around forty members in attendance, there was a familial and comfortable atmosphere. After speaking with several members, it became clear that this congregation deeply values communicating the love and grace of God by word and deed. The service itself was traditional and liturgical, beginning with a welcome to worship that was followed by announcements, hymns both standing and seated, scripture reading, a sermon, and a time for tithing and prayer.
Throughout each element of worship, the congregational emphasis on community service was never lost. The attendees of Woodlawn UMC cherish the ministries they are involved with, one of which being the Woodlawn Community Table. This ministry, started in 2014 by members of the congregation, has grown into a cooperative work that aids low-income members of the Woodlawn area with healthy food options and meaningful community-based relationships.
In addition to this outward moving ministry, Woodlawn UMC also hosts a few in-church ministries. These include a Sunday morning children’s church service led by volunteers and a youth ministry co-op. The Woodlawn youth join with Avondale, East Lake and Highlands UMCs to meet on the first and third Sundays, and it is collectively known as East AvonWood High.
Woodlawn UMC has seen considerable change in its time. It has seen its one hundred and thirty-six years of history including wars, segregation, a fire, and a knife attack. Yet through it all, the church has remained a beacon of love and perseverance for the Woodlawn area. Their history is not just contained to Woodlawn but spreads throughout Birmingham and all of Alabama. Today, all are welcomed by Woodlawn UMC, and we can attest to this by our first-hand experience of feeling invited and included as soon as we stepped into their church on a Sunday morning. Woodlawn UMC has undergone changes, and attendance has fluctuated through the years, but they still stand firmly in Woodlawn with the mission to serve God and to make a difference in their neighborhood. As Pastor Emily Freeman Penfield said when we visited: “We are small but mighty.”
Woodlawn United Methodist Church
Location: 139 54th Street North, Birmingham, AL 35212
Congregation established: 1887
Building erected: 2011
Affiliation: United Methodist
“About Us.” Woodlawn Community Table, https://www.woodlawncommunitytable.org/about-us.html.
“Breaking News: Woodlawn UMC Suffers Fire.”2009 North Alabama Conference United Methodist Church, May 31, 2009. https://www.umcna.org/postdetail/121551.
Hammontree, John. 2015. “Beyond the Movie: The 50 Year Struggle for the Future of Woodlawn High.” AL.com October 18, 2015, https://www.al.com/news/2015/10/beyond_the_movie_the_50_year_s.html.
“Join Us for Worship Each Sunday Morning at 11:05am.” Woodlawn United Methodist Church, https://woodlawnbham.com/.
Nunnelley, William A. 1991 Bull Connor. University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Rutland, John Rutland. 1995 Interview, July 21, 1995 BCRI Oral History Collection, accessed April 1, 2023, https://bcriohp.org/items/show/104.
“Woodlawn United Methodist Church.” Bhamwiki, https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Woodlawn_United_Methodist_Church.
Olivia Easterling ‘23 and Carson Knauff ‘22 were students in Race, Religion, and Ethnicity in America in Samford University’s Department of Biblical & Religious Studies in fall 2022.
Published April 22, 2023.