KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (June 27, 2019) -- The Rev. Elston McLain knew his phone was buzzing but he couldn’t answer. He was on stage in front of the Holston Annual Conference, leading his 20 musicians in playing the African drums.
The audience of 1,800 in Stuart Auditorium loved it. They applauded and clapped along as McLain and his group of mostly children rhythmically pounded away. Their music was a high healing moment in a particularly contentious four-day faith gathering.
As soon as McLain stepped off the stage and sat down, he learned why his phone was ringing. One of his church members said, “Reverend, come go outside.”
“I knew something was wrong. I saw the look on her face,” McLain says.
One of his friends would later capture the scenario by saying, “You were burning the conference stage down while they were burning your church down.”
On June 11, at the same time the DrumBeats from Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church were leading worship in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, vandals were setting their church building on fire 90 miles away in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“It kind of hurt my feelings,” McLain said. “I felt let down. I had a pity party.”
After their Lake Junaluska appearance, McLain sent the busload of 30 drums and about 50 children, parents, and members back home to Knoxville. The pastor stayed in Lake Junaluska because Annual Conference was not yet complete.
At first, McLain thought both his office and the secretary’s office were destroyed by fire. He later learned his own office had smoke damage but survived.
McLain was disappointed because Lennon-Seney reaches out to the community where the suspects live -- through the DrumBeats and other programs. Residents of the low-income apartments next to the church are often fed, educated and cared for by Lennon-Seney ministries.
“This ministry is good for the church and the community,” McLain said. “It gives them something positive to do so we can prevent things like this from happening.”
INVITATION FOR MINISTRY
The idea for an African drum ministry was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where McLain served Stanley United Methodist Church from 2009 to 2016.
When a fellow pastor, the Rev. Charlotte Williams, complained she couldn’t find African drum musicians for Kwanza at Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church, McLain volunteered to do it.
“She laughed at me,” says McLain, smiling. “My church members were all laughing, too. High-fiving each other.”
McLain wasn’t kidding, though. He was a percussionist in his school bands in Lineville, Alabama. Before arriving in Holston Conference, McLain had served as pastor in the North Alabama Conference for 20 years. He earned a doctor in ministry degree from Sewanee School of Theology, where he studied parish ministry.
In Chattanooga, McLain was pastor at Stanley as well as director of Mount Moriah Parish. The parish included Stanley, Eastdale and four other African-American congregations.
McLain not only played the drums at Eastdale’s Kwanza service, he was inspired to offer an African drums class in the parish’s upcoming vacation Bible school.
“I went around to all the pawn shops to look for African drums,” he said. “I told them what I was doing, and they gave me a big discount.”
The drums class was a hit for the parish and for the community. It led to a weekly, year-round ministry. “Kids came from everywhere,” McLain said. “Some joined the church.”
The Chattanooga DrumBeats were invited to play throughout the city, at Juneteenth and Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, at churches and schools, and at Holston Annual Conference 2015. McLain was asked to teach African drum classes for Girls Inc. and Boys to Men Mentoring.
When McLain was appointed to Lennon-Seney in 2016, he knew he would start a new drum ministry in Knoxville.
On Wednesday nights at Lennon-Seney, about 40 children and adults come from the neighborhood to eat a big dinner and play the drums. The invitation spreads by word of mouth, McLain says.
“A lot of them are not members. I don’t make that an issue. It’s a drawing card.”
The church meets the community in other ways, too. On Friday morning, the church hosts an English as Second Language class for about 25 people from African nations and Pakistan. Vegetables are shared through a community garden. The congregation hosts periodic food and clothing giveaways and free clinics.
On Sunday afternoon, the church shares its sanctuary with Knoxville Internationals Network for an African worship service in the Swahili language.
Lennon-Seney is a descendant of two congregations that started in 1875 and 1881, respectively. The church that now sits on Dandridge Avenue in east Knoxville was a new home for Lennon Memorial Methodist Church in 1959. In 1974, nearby Seney Chapel United Methodist merged with Lennon to become one of the largest African-American churches in Holston Conference.
Today, Lennon-Seney is known to many as the church with the African drums. McLain’s second generation of DrumBeats have played at Knoxville’s World Refugee Day in Chilhowee Park and at numerous churches of various denominations throughout the city.
On Aug. 1, they will travel to Cedar Bluff United Methodist Church in Virginia where the Rev. Annette Warren is pastor. On Nov. 9, they will play for United Methodist Women of Holston’s Tennessee Valley District.
KEEPING IT SPIRITUAL
The secretary’s office at Lennon-Seney is a charred mess, as McLain and John Barnes, a church trustee, wait for the insurance company to work through the restoration process.
Barnes said four children allegedly found the parking lot empty on June 11 and set an old tire on fire at the office window. “It might have been retaliation,” Barnes said, after church leaders were forced to report three previous acts of vandalism to authorities.
“I feel sorry for the families, because there are going to be losses,” McLain said.
The pastor was sad and concerned on the final day of Holston Annual Conference, after an exhilarating night with his DrumBeats in Stuart Auditorium. But he was lifted up by Bishop Dindy Taylor’s public prayer for Lennon-Seney and the many expressions of care from others.
“People really encouraged me,” he said. “There were so many calls from other churches and people saying, ‘Let us know if there is anything you need.’
“We are keeping it spiritual,” McLain said. “The devil wants us to be discouraged. But God is going to win in the end. Something good is going to come out of it.”
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org. All drum photos by Ben Smith.
For more Annual Conference news, visit Holston.org/ACNews.
Photos below: (1) John Barnes and Rev. Elston McLain observe fire damage. (2) Lennon-Seney UMC. (3-7) The DrumBeats and Choir Director Senetra Weaver share their music at Holston Annual Conference. (8) Group shot.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.