To kick off its bicentennial year, early in 2018, First United Methodist Church looked back to its roots with Worship at the Taverns, holding services at clubs around town. That was a throwback to 1818, when 24-year-old traveling preacher Ebenezer Hearn found his congregation at Joshua Halbert’s tavern, one of of two sturdy log cabins here, also a “little shanty of a hotel." At the time, what would become Tuscaloosa on that Dec. 13, 1819, held only about 600 settlers.
While the Methodist practice clearly has rooted and flourished since then, FUMC still seeks to reach the people where they are: One of the church's core values is "radical hospitality." To wrap the celebrations this weekend, the 3,000-member FUMC will move outward from its block downtown, in this city of 100,000, to the streets to join the University of Alabama's homecoming parade, which begins at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Then Sunday, there'll be coffee with all the living former pastors — Bob Gunn, Joe Elmore, Bill Morgan, Mack Chapman, Vaughn Stafford, Bill Bostick — at 8 a.m., followed by 8:30 and 11 a.m. services in both The Bridge (contemporary services) and Traditions. Stafford will preach in The Bridge, Bostick in Traditions.
At 9:30 a.m., they're throwing a birthday party in the activity center, with cake, party favors — prayer journals and PopSockets — interactive games, and presentation of a time capsule from the children and youth of the 2018 church, to the children and youth of the 2118 church. Four large timeline banners circle the activity center walls, filling out major events in the church's 200 years. Those who study the timeline carefully can find all the answers to the Sunday party's trivia game.
Much of the celebration planning was turned over to Barbara Best Kucharski, a church member since her UA student days in the '70s. Kucharski not only prepped the celebrations, but organized pomping — rolling sheets of tissue paper into balls — for months, and a final "pomping and pizza" party to get the parade float decorated.
"Somebody accused me of being an aging sorority girl," she said. "And I'm like, well, you know, if the shoe fits ..."
Kucharski chose to join FUMC's celebration with the UA homecoming weekend not only for the already festive air, but because many of the church's founders also helped create the university.
"I liked the message of the Methodist church. They do encourage you to be a thinker. It's not contradictory to being a Christian. They want us to question things, to dig deeper," she said. While members agree on the basics of faith, they respect variances and differences. John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, once said, "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think."
This year's UA homecoming theme, Excellence Lights the Crimson Flame, felt symbolic, as the church symbol is a flame and the cross. So on the 29-foot-long float, the banner reads, "Lighting the flames of faith and learning." They've created images of three FUMC folks many along the parade route should recognize: Judy Bonner, first woman president of UA; former UA athletics director Bill Battle; and legendary head football coach Paul William "Bear" Bryant. Kids riding will supply smiling faces into the cutouts, wearing a coach's cap, mortarboard and houndstooth hat, respectively. The rear of the float features a pomped image of the church's 1828 Paul Revere Bell. Along the route, kids not riding will be ringing bells. Also representing FUMC in the parde will be the church bus and church member John Dishuck's antique car. Those not otherwise participating are invited to watch from the church's front steps.
"It's kind of our answer to the great commission" of Christ, to spread the word to all lands, Kurcharski said. "We're going to put it out there. What better way to show the community who First Methodist is, and what we're about?"
While the FUMC prides itself on being open and innovative, some of this year's public events, like the tavern series, were met with skepticism, largely from older church members. But that tavern series was much-loved and well-attended, by all ages, said church member and publicity chair Dennis Stanard.
"Barbara's brought us out of our cocoon," he said. "Typically a church meeting, we'd have a dinner, then speakers, sing a few hymns and go home. A lot of this, the celebration and parade, is innovative for our older generation. That's stepping out for us."
"Oh, it's stepping way out," Kucharski said, laughing.
With so many members, and services in both contemporary and traditional styles, members could sometimes miss each other. On any given Sunday, anywhere from 800 to 1,000 attend services, but at different times, and in different ways.
"I hope this weekend will unify the church for us," Stanard said. "It's bound to bring us closer. We're not only observing the past, but reigniting the present and future.
"The church does a lot of outreach, but there are so many people, even inside the church, who don't know the general history. We're hoping to instill pride."
Working on this project over the past years has made Kurcharski "... realize I want to be more active in my church.
"It's a big weekend, but the celebration doesn't stop here. It's a kickoff to plan for the next 200 years, to how we keep our church current, and how we make our mark for the next 200 years."