Keeping the Faith

Providence Presbyterian quietly celebrates 250 years as a Charlotte church.

In the midst of the 21st-century frenzy that surrounds Providence Presbyterian Church, Rev. Walt McCanless often steps outside his office to find someone sitting on one of the benches that grace the campus. Thinking benches, the church calls them. Traffic on Providence Road, which the church overlooks, is whizzing past. Workmen are hammering away on the nearby Waverly mega-development that’s bringing more commerce and congestion to the church’s doorstep. And yet, there a lone soul sits, savoring the quiet that endures here, stirring the senior pastor to thank God for the gift that keeps on giving, progress be darned.

“We really are a refuge from the hustle and bustle that is going on,” McCanless says. “A place apart, if you will.”

The south Charlotte church capped the celebration of its 250th anniversary this past spring with all the fanfare the occasion deserved. This, after all, in a city of 700 or more houses of worship, is one of the oldest. Its wood-frame sanctuary, on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1858, before the Civil War. Its cemetery dates back to 1764, before the Revolutionary War. If ever a Sunday cried out for bagpipes, prayers of gratitude, and enough covered dishes to feed an army and a navy, this was the one.

But the 250th anniversary is worthy of note for more than the 300 families who call Providence Presbyterian Church home, gathering to praise God and care for each other and their neighbor. There is meaning in the milestone as well for those unfamiliar with this busy corner of our city. For those who glance at the back of the white-framed church on their commute Uptown never see what’s on the other side. For those who wonder, on the way to whatever their crazy day holds, whether it’s possible to take refuge from the hustle and bustle.

One fine Saturday, I left my SouthPark home and headed past the forever-congested Arboretum Shopping Center, past fine new subdivisions and the campus of nearby Charlotte Latin School until I came to Providence Presbyterian Church. No one was there. As I walked around the 6.5-acre campus, headed nowhere in particular, I noticed the seven benches forming a semicircle. The back of the metal ones featured a design, one a tree and the other a heart. I admired the wooden swing planted in the middle of a garden of flowers and shrubs. I paused, and as I did, it dawned on me. From the heart of the campus, with the trees rustling in the wind, you can’t hear the noise from all that surrounds this place.

Honestly, in a world filled with people in search of a little peace and quiet, only a handful will find it at Providence Presbyterian Church. But perhaps everyone else can rest easier, knowing that here at the corner of commerce and congestion, there stands a place apart.

Ken Garfield covered faith and values for The Observer for 12 years. He is now Director of Communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte. Reach him at ken@mpumc.org.

Photos by Justin Driscoll