A small flock of Christian believers who wanted to start a church in Greenback had nowhere to go and a preacher who was reluctant at first to answer the call.

Meanwhile, a nearby church building sat unused, seemingly waiting to be resurrected and put into service once more. It was built in 1896.

That’s when God got involved, Steve Evans said. The two flocks — one African American and the other white — entered into an agreement one year ago. The AME Zion church reopened its doors to allow Evans and New Covenant Missionary Baptist to start their faith journey there.

Ted and Sandra Hipps and others had heard Steve Evans preach as he filled in at another church when his uncle, Everett Evans, fell sick and was unable to pastor. Everett Evans passed away and Steve Evans felt like he might be called to lead another church congregation already established in the area, although he didn’t know which church that would be.

That’s when the small group asked him to start a new church.

“We want to call you as pastor,” Evans said they told him. “I felt like the Lord was leading me. If I didn’t do it, they would be out in the world, maybe not going to church at all. They were faithful and wanting a church, so I said OK.”

It was April 22, 2018, when Evans said he initially surrendered to the Lord and began his journey preaching at different area churches. He was ordained on July 5, 2019, after preaching his first service as the pastor of the newly formed church, New Covenant Missionary Baptist, on June 11, 2019.

Getting established in the community

They met, at first, in the basement of the Greenback Community Center, but Evans said he knew that wasn’t sustainable. He and his congregation began searching for a more permanent location. That’s when Greenback Mayor Dewayne Birchfield told Evans about an empty church that might be willing to offer its space.

It was Craigs Chapel AME Zion, the African-Methodist-Episcopal church in Greenback that had closed its doors recently due to lack of membership. It is slated to one day become a museum. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a deep history in the community. A schoolhouse was opened in 1899.

Nearby is evidence the Underground Railroad cut its way across this very terrain as slaves sought freedom by escaping to the North.

Evans remembers the day he talked to the Rev. Willa Estell about possibly using Craigs Chapel as New Convenant’s meeting location.

“My mother lives nearby,” Evans said. “I went to her house and said ‘I am burdened. I need to pray for God’s will for this church.’ We pulled into the driveway and stopped at the sign. Storm clouds were off in the distance.”

It was at that moment that Estell called Evans. He said he and his mom, Willie Clyde Hammontree Evans, still sitting in the car, bowed their heads as they prayed. Estell was on speaker, listening.

The right connection

“You could feel the Holy Spirit,” Evans said. “As Jesus, said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name.’ You could feel something happen.”

A lease was signed a short time later. Craigs Chapel even allowed New Covenant to move in rent free for the first six months, only paying utilities.

What Steve Evans initially didn’t know was that his own family provided the land on which Craigs Chapel stands. His great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Hammontree, was the one. He and his wife, Nancy, are buried in the church’s cemetery. James Hammontree fought in the War of 1812.

This Sunday, New Covenant Missionary Baptist will celebrate its one-year anniversary. The service starts at 10 a.m. Guest pastor Aaron Disney of Lakewood Baptist Church will lead. Music will be provided by Crossroads.

Evans is grateful that Craigs Chapel allowed him to start a ministry here. He said this nation is in troubled times and racial tension is high. That two different denominations and races can come together should serve as a message to all, he said.

“When we all get to heaven, they won’t be saying ‘New Covenant Missionary Baptist over here and Craigs Chapel over here.’ It will be all my children and the family of I Am.”

Estell said she remembers the day she met Evans and discussed the partnership. She is pastor of St. Paul AME Zion in Maryville and presiding elder of the AME Zion district here.

“I genuinely liked him and once we met face to face, he was so excited about God’s call on his life and the possibility of worshipping at Craigs,” she explained. “His love of God and people are evident, and we wanted to help him in his new endeavor. At some point, we will use Craigs as a historical museum for the AME Zion Church, but in the meantime, we are grateful that he and his congregation are there.”

Evans’ mom said she remembers growing up with at least eight black families in Greenback. She was born on a farm off State Route 95 and now lives near Craigs Chapel. The last member of Craigs Chapel was Grace Black Henry, who has since moved away. She is in her 80s.

Hitting the ground running

In this short time since it began, New Covenant has established a nursing home ministry for nine different facilities. Evans’ message is recorded each week and DVDs are provided to the nursing homes.

There are plans to start a Celebrate Recovery group with help from other congregations.

When COVID-19 hit and churches were prevented from holding services, Evans purchased an FM transmitter and delivered his sermons from the front porch of the church. Attendees sat in their cars.

The small church has a presence on Facebook and also YouTube. Evans, wife, Leneeen, and their adult daughter put together a video each week with Bible study and crafts for children. In one week, it got more than 800 views.

Two missionaries are supported by this congregation as they send tithes to those in foreign lands. Evans is quick to point out they also know just how close they are to those needing a message of love and redemption.

“Right back here is the mission field,” the pastor said, referring to the surrounding neighborhood. He said his message on the steps was heard by many who sat on their own front porches.

Sermons have moved back inside Craigs Chapel. It can seat about 70. There also is an overflow area.

Taking the lead

Evans’ dad, Owen Evans, was a pastor for 58 years. He passed away in March 2017 after leading nine different churches. Evans’ mom is now a member at New Covenant. She is 91. Willie Clyde Hammontree Evans said she never considered her son would follow in her husband’s footsteps.

He almost didn’t.

“It wasn’t until I stopped running,” Steve Evans said. “There is a song called ‘I Surrender All.’ Well, I surrendered some at first. I didn’t want to do what the Lord was asking.”

He is surrounded by memories and artifacts of the past. In his small office at the church hang a coat and hat belonging to his uncle, Everett Evans. A Bible that is more than 100 years old has a place at this historic church. And even the kitchen pot New Covenant used as a way to collect the offering when they were newbies in the Greenback Community Center basement — it made the trip with them to Craigs Chapel.

There are two signs out front, one for Craigs Chapel and the other for New Covenant. Evans doesn’t know how long his congregation will call this historic place home. They plan to make the most of their time there.

“When they asked me to be their preacher, my heart went out,” Evans said. “Some had maybe not ever been in church and for others it had been a long time. I feel like a shepherd. I felt like they might be lost and gone astray. I felt the desire. Honestly, we have been on a ride. We have been on a train that the Lord has carried.”

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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