We don’t talk a enough around here about church. It’s not that church isn’t important. I’ll venture to guess that most of us who grew up in the South, church was a huge part of our lives. Religion, specifically, probably Christianity, was a part you can’t really take out of your life and still be the same person you are, for better or for worse.
For my formative years, at least, one such church was that defining force in my life. That place was Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
Of course Bellevue’s history began long before I, or even my grandparents, were alive. The church was formed in 1903, has a rich history that includes being lead by the great Robert G. Lee, of “Pay-Day Someday” fame, an instrumental key in leading the Southern Baptist Convention in staying true to the conservative entity that it is today, has partnered with Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary to produce some of the countries finest pastors, donated millions to outreach into the community through their annual Love Offering, launched the Love Worth Finding ministry, hosted the annual Singing Christmas Tree and Memphis Passion Play that have Broadway-like special effects, choreography, and musical numbers.
But my journey with Bellevue began when we moved to Memphis from Birmingham when I was in 6th grade. I was not super happy about this decision. I loved (still love!) Birmingham. Daddy had a successful career there in advertising. We lived in the cutest little white house with black shutters, on the all-American cove with friends, bicycles, a huge backyard… everything a kid needs to be happy.
And now, strangely, my dad felt the need to go be a Southern Baptist minister in Tennessee. I wasn’t thrilled.
But looking back, words can’t convey how much Memphis and Bellevue brought into my life. That community brought me some of the best girlfriends a girl could have. I still keep up with these women who own their own businesses, have families, play in cool bands, nurse folks back to health, run financial offices, move away and come back home… This community brought me dear dear Husband. We were married in the lobby under the grand chandelier that was moved from the old sanctuary to their new spot in Cordova. This community so influenced my relationship with Jesus that I will never be the same. Never, never, never. And my life wouldn’t be the same were it not for this community with which I traveled, sang with, spent most Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and most weekends with (that’s right… our family is not an SMO kind of family — that’s “Sunday Morning Only” for those of you not fortunate enough to grow up as a teenage girl with a Southern Baptist minister for a father). They probably influence the way I dress, talk, listen to music.
Growing up, church was my life.
And it’s only now, looking back, that I realize what a large part this family played.
If you’ve ever driven through Memphis on I-40, you’ve most likely experienced a taste of Bellevue. The three white crosses you see illuminated were a gift from a member over a decade ago. I was there for the first lighting ceremony, on New Year’s Eve of 2000. Of course, with the Y2K scare, no one was even positive they would light, but we all gathered, sang, and held our breath as they magnificently lit up the sky on those first moments of the new millenium.
Yes, this small taste does convey one of the most glaring points about Bellevue. Some love it, some hate it — but Bellevue is big. While it’s undergone some changes, some pains, in the last few years, while I was in Memphis, we had around 30,000 members. Mega-church comes with its own set of problems, stigmas, critics — just like any large family.
But we had a strong leader in Adrian Rogers. This shepherd gracefully and graciously led Bellevue for over 30 years.
Bellevue is so entwined with Memphis to me, and to many others, that we just couldn’t leave it out of our Memphis in May features. I had the opportunity to go back and share with Becky last fall on our road trip. To walk those halls again where so many childhood and teenage, college and young adult memories took place was special. I write this not taking lightly that there really can be bits of holy ground here on this earth.
If you have a place in your life — a church, a school, a park, a home, where you really felt the best of being alive, that young-at-heart, those “glory days” feeling, be thankful. Perhaps plan a pilgrimage to see those old faces and memories.
Where are your places in the South where you “grew up?”