Two years ago, members of The Church on Fillmore had to face facts: Their beloved church was failing.
A Phoenix institution, the downtown church began as a Bible study in 1938. Shortly after constituting as Parkview Baptist Church in 1942, the congregation purchased land near the then one-runway Sky Harbor Airport and constructed a building. In 1980, church members sold that site and bought a city block at 7th Avenue and Fillmore, inspiring a new name: The Church on Fillmore. Beautiful red brick church facilities were built.
Several years later, gentrification of the inner city began to displace many low-income families and homeless individuals, leading to declining attendance. Recent economic downturns added to the church’s trials.
Still, despite its struggles, God was not finished with the 73-year-old church.
Monty Patton, a local pastor and North American Mission Board (NAMB) Send City coordinator for Phoenix-Tucson, identified The Church on Fillmore as a possible site for a church plant. NAMB representatives asked Hillside Baptist Church in Phoenix and Open Door Church in Raleigh, N.C., to join them in a church-planting partnership. Also in the mix were Central Association of Southern Baptists, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention and, of course, the remaining members of the downtown church.
“Church on Fillmore members voted to allow a church plant to meet in their facility,” Patton says. “They were gracious enough to allow us to do that.”
Anthony Cox, who had completed Open Door’s pastoral training, was chosen to lead the new church plant.
Patton says of Cox, “The Father knew Anthony was the perfect guy for this. Not only is he extremely intelligent, he really seeks where the Father is working. I’m extremely impressed with him.”
Cox hit the ground running when he and his family arrived in June 2014.
“From the very beginning, I served in a pastoral relationship with The Church on Fillmore, with three bodies [Open Door, Hillside and The Church on Fillmore] embracing this idea of making disciples in the city,” he says.
Once he assumed the role of servant-leader at The Church on Fillmore, his heart became burdened for the struggling church. “It became a burden that could not be ignored,” he says.
Thirteen months later, on July 19, 2015, members of The Church on Fillmore held a covenant-signing service, voting to launch Mercy Hill Church in their historic location.
Charlotte Mroczkowski was a member of The Church on Fillmore for more than eight years.
“It’s night and day,” Mroczkowski says. “God brought the church back. It’s been a long haul, but it has been good – it brought us closer. This church has love. The first time I came here, I felt the love.”
Another member, Pam Tate, says, “It’s nice to hear the babies in church. Members were aging; Anthony is bringing young people into the church.”
Cox says the goal was to meet people where they are.
“Our strategy was not to come in and take over and displace those who are on the margins,” he says, “but to meet them at the margins to build community together in partnership.”
The church has adopted a new vision while continuing the positive ministries of the past, such as its weekly food ministry.
In the future, Mercy Hill leaders hope to begin an equipping center for pastors and lay people to gain an urban experience within a local church context.
Cox says Mercy Hill’s mission statement best describes the church’s vision: We exist as a family of believers in Jesus Christ, who unite in Gospel, Community and Mission for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.
“Not like family, but as family – a functioning family,” he says.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article appeared in Portraits at portraits.azsbc.org, newsjournal of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention. Jean Bihn, a freelance writer and photographer, is a member of Mountain Ridge Baptist Church, Glendale.)