Early in its 164-year history, the spired tower rising high above Travis Park United Methodist Church used to stand nearly alone in the downtown skyline.
Mostly Anglo, middle and upper-income families filled the sanctuary with little need to advertise its traditional services, music and programs.
Today, lofty hotels, banks and parking garages swallow the entire church — once the region's flagship congregation for United Methodists. The weakening of denominational loyalty and the explosion of suburban sprawl erased its once-robust membership of middle- and upper-income families that peaked to 5,000-plus in the 1950s.
Nearly a dozen years ago, the congregation began to reshape its identity into an eclectic environment of contemporary music and liturgy, ministry to the homeless and working poor and full acceptance of alternative lifestyles and views of the Bible.
Travis Park is aiming to be a progressive option, one where diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds make up the crux of its worship community — no matter how utopian that may seem.
“It's one thing to be tolerant of people who are different and say it's OK if you are here,” said Betty Gibbs Curry, the church's communications coordinator. “And it's another thing to create an environment where they feel welcome. We've gone from an ‘us' and ‘them' to just an ‘us.'”
The early days
Organized in 1846, the church was founded by missionary John Wesley DeVilbiss as the first Methodist congregation in San Antonio.
It enjoyed strong, gradual growth throughout subsequent decades, building its current sanctuary in 1886 and later enlarging the sanctuary and purchasing adjacent properties.
For years, it was the biggest and wealthiest church in the Southwest Texas Conference, a region of 350 churches from Corpus Christi to Austin, serving as the conference's host site for its yearly business meetings.
Its pastors often became bishops. Its support was vital to starting new churches, including what is now the city's largest, University United Methodist on the North Side.
Today, only 250 people gather for two services in the sanctuary, which seats nearly 800. Another 250 attend a short worship service in the church basement geared for the homeless.
The decline began in the 1950s. Membership of 5,246 in 1949 fell by nearly 1,000 in the next decade.
A fire in 1955, which tore through the sanctuary floor, hurt growth. The church weighed its options, including whether to stay and rebuild, or relocate to the suburbs.
Facing steep declines by the mid-1990s, a group of young adults was pivotal in bringing out a change. They proposed the idea of feeding the homeless on Sunday mornings, recognizing that population frequented the church's neighborhood and used a major city bus stop across the street at Travis Park.
The breakfast crowd
Sunday breakfasts today are a great source of pride. Dozens line up for the 8 a.m. opening. They race to sign up for free showers, clothing and hygiene products before the start of a 20-minute worship service in the church's basement.
Rickey Johnson, 50, came three years ago as a volunteer for the breakfast. He stopped going to a military chapel and joined the church as a result. He rides a bus for 30 minutes to take part in weekday events and drives 15 minutes from his home for Sunday services.
“The church is all inclusive and very diverse,” said Johnson, who is African American and the lead usher for the 11 a.m. Sunday service.
While the church has a majority Anglo population, it has a significant Hispanic and black membership. One member of the youth group is openly gay. Some other adults are in same-sex relationships. The church is the only Methodist congregation in San Antonio to be designated as “reconciling,” a title for UMC churches welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
And about a year ago, the church made an intentional effort to encourage interaction. Programs for all ages were “stacked” into Sunday nights and Wednesday nights and infused with a single meal.“We're doing a better job of integrating the divergence of our congregation,” said pastor Claus Rohlfs. “So we don't have programs just for suburbanites and just for homeless. We all are fellowshipping at certain points.”
A recent Wednesday night service provided a glimpse into the egalitarian model the church is trying to emulate.
The healing and communion service took place in a chapel filled with 18 people and led by Taylor Boone, a local attorney and associate pastor.
Some there were homeless. Others were poor and holding down part-time jobs. Others owned homes and had solid jobs. An upright piano accompanied their singing of old hymns and a Christmas carol, “Joy to the World,” suggested spontaneously by the audience.
During communion, Boone prayed over a loaf of bread and cup of grape juice before inviting everyone to gather in the middle aisle. Clergy and lay took turns serving one another, each ripping off a piece of bread and dipping it in the cup.
Later, Boone led a prayer for healing. Each person knelt at the altar railing and whispered private prayer requests.
Among them was Andy Thornton, a 59-year-old homeless man who was raised Catholic but was only looking for a free meal when he joined the church 10 years ago.
Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he walked with a cane because of diabetes and arthritis.
“I had always considered myself antichurch but this place made me curious,” said Thornton, a greeter and sound tech now for the church. “I don't consider myself Methodist, but this is my spiritual home. I never had a problem with my faith. It was the ‘-isms' and ‘church' I had a problem with.”