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'A home, a family and a place to worship', First Presbyterian Church still an integral part of Johnson City

Jonathan Roberts • Sep 1, 2019 at 8:08 PM

With its massive, rebuilt steeple towering over downtown Johnson City, it’s hard not to notice First Presbyterian Church — and even harder to ignore its impact on the city’s history.

The church, which was founded in 1869, is the oldest church in the region still in its original location, and though sections have been rebuilt and the church has expanded since then, it still remains a vital part of Johnson City’s culture, at least in the eyes of Julia Beeson.

“To me, it’s a home, a family, a place to worship God. … I’m involved in some of the missions of the church, and that gives me a realistic picture of what is going on in the community,” said Beeson, who also serves as a chairperson for the church’s sesquicentennial celebration.

The church has come a long way from its early days of worship at Johnson’s Depot, however, and extensive work has been done to keep the building updated and able to accommodate the hundreds of congregants the church has — a significant increase from the 50 it boasted in the 1870s.

Since the early 20th century, at least four major renovations and expansions have been completed, not including the two times the church’s steeple was rebuilt. Its current steeple was rebuilt in the 1960s and cost about $50,000 to replace, roughy $384,000 in today’s money.

First Presbyterian’s calling card, however, is its dedication to the community and nothing embodies that more than The River, a place for women in need. Since 2004, The River has provided women in need a place to care for themselves and family, and has become as much of a community effort as it is a First Presbyterian one.

“It’s a place of hope and joy,” third-generation congregant Lisa Trivette Smalling told the Johnson City Press in 2009. “It has been a blessing for us and the women.”

The church also supports other community organizations — too many, in fact, for Beeson to name. In addition to The River, it hosts monthly dinners for anyone in need, coat drives and youth programs.

“I know when you start naming ones, you leave some out,” she quipped.

Despite the church’s storied history, it almost wasn’t.

“I wasn’t here, but there was a discussion of moving out of the downtown area, and the members felt a commitment to staying in this area,” Beeson said. “Maybe (staying downtown) brings some challenges, but it also brings opportunities.

“I don’t know how significant (being downtown) is to a new person in the community … but I think it just is a testament to the strong commitment to being in Johnson City and being a part of the downtown community.”

The future though, is sure to take them on a new path. 

On Sept. 8, they will welcome a new pastor, the first non-interim pastor since early 2018. 

“It’s real exciting to us that Paul Helphenstine, who was a former associate pastor at this church, is going to come back and be the lead pastor,” Beeson said. 

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