Yates Baptist Church is a historic church that continues to gather and work on the same grounds where it was established in 1878 after a series of camp meetings under a brush arbor in a farmer’s field.
Over time, the community in which the church was planted has changed from a largely agricultural one on the outskirts of old Durham into a suburban mix of residences and businesses between downtown and the newest residences away from the city center.
Within a short walk of the church campus, one encounters a diverse neighborhood with residents of various racial and cultural backgrounds, speaking a rich assortment of world languages. It is a neighborhood of city natives and refugees, ordinary folks and visiting scholars, prominent city families and newcomers.
In October 2016, Yates began an extensive renovation of the entire campus to maintain and grow its longstanding connections with the community – and to build new ones. This included deferred maintenance, such as roofing, HVAC and parking requirements. It also included some upfitting of existing facilities and a dramatic reconstruction of the church sanctuary, which has stood at the corner of Cornwallis and Chapel Hill roads for over 60 years (this structure was a reconstruction of the Yates sanctuary that burned in 1946). With an eye on improved access and usefulness for all its neighbors, Yates has redesigned its primary gathering space for full accessibility, regardless of hindrance or handicap.
There are many reasons for the church to invest in this way:
▪ For many years, the church been a meeting place for adults with special intellectual and physical needs through its weekly Sonshine ministry. Every week, 50 to 70 adults gather for a meal and time together, and members of this group comprise a significant proportion of the worshiping congregation.
▪ Yates is working ever more extensively to support immigrants and the refugees in the area through ESL classes and refugee settlement. A new congregation of Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian residents now gathers at the church (40 to 60 weekly), many of whom arrive as refugees, seeking a place to live in safety and a place to belong.
▪ Yates also recently entered into a program with Duke Divinity School’s Theology, Medicine and Culture initiative to explore how churches can be more involved in improving community health. The special focus of its work will be on the church and mental health. Already a home for several 12-step recovery programs and support meetings for those in grief after the death of loved ones, Yates is building capacity to provide support in many areas of community health. In all these ways and many more, Yates has made an investment in the community itself to be a unifying place of welcome, healing and hope for all in times that seem divided.
Over the past 13 months of construction, many passersby noted the many months when Yates’ roof trusses were suspended on scaffolding during the demolition of the sanctuary walls. “Are you the church without walls?” many asked. Indeed, it has been a time to reflect on life “without walls!” In the end, all the recent work is not an effort to keep up with the latest fads in church design, but an earnest effort to keep up with the needs of the neighbors Yates still serves after all these years. Yates wants the walls to remain down even while the masonry has been restored.
At 10:30 a.m. Nov. 19, 2017, Yates Baptist Church will celebrate the completion of the construction work and recommit to the church’s longstanding mission of service to the neighborhood even as it continues to change. Yates welcomes any in the community who wish to celebrate that special day together.
Christopher Ingram is senior pastor of Yates Baptist Church.