The Spiritual Side of Charlotte

Charlotte's large spiritual community shapes the city's diverse culture.
By: Allen Norwood
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Outsiders know about banking and NASCAR. But locals know it all starts with faith. With some 700 churches and growing, Charlotte prides itself as a city of diverse spirituality.

Evangelist Billy Graham was born in Charlotte, on a dairy farm near what is now Park Road Shopping Center. The new Billy Graham Library, which chronicles Graham's 60-year preaching career, sits just a few miles from where he grew up. The library officially reconnects Graham to Charlotte -- and the old house has come back to the city, too.

Television evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker also rose to prominence here. Years ago, when they were at their peak, they bought Graham's boyhood home and moved it to their PTL Club campus in nearby Fort Mill, S.C. Although they tumbled from grace, the house endured. When the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association relocated from Minneapolis to Charlotte, it bought and moved the house.

The stately brick house with symmetrical one-story wings now shares a campus with the library. The house was restored with attention to authentic detail, down to the half-written letter Graham's mother was composing at her death.

Many Faiths, One Community

The Charlotte branch of the United House of Prayer for All People was founded in 1926 by Bishop "Sweet Daddy" Grace, in a tent at what are now Third and Caldwell streets. Today, the predominantly African-American church is woven into Charlotte's spiritual tapestry. The main church, the "mother house," is on Beatties Ford Road and congregations dot the city. UHOP serves the best Southern cooking in town at lunchtime.

When the fledgling Trinity Episcopal School opened near uptown, it didn't have an auditorium for daily chapel. The nearby House of Prayer threw open its doors, and the kids trooped back and forth for services. The Episcopal school didn't have a cafeteria either. The House of Prayer started delivering hot lunches: collard greens, macaroni and cheese, chicken, meatloaf. Trinity moms joked that the fare had soured the students forever on "real" school food -- and maybe even on home cooking.

Charlotte is a city of newcomers, and they've changed the faith landscape. The city was founded by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. But Catholics, many moving down from the Northeast, now make up the single largest denomination. There are now more than 70,000 Catholics in Mecklenburg County, topping the 50,000 Southern Baptists. That shift would surprise many Charlotteans.

The spiritual community often amazes newcomers. When New Yorkers arrive, some are surprised to find two Jewish synagogues, Temple Israel and Temple Beth El, sharing the same campus. The two congregations share 54-acre Shalom Park with the Jewish Community Center. That's not what longtime Manhattan residents are used to. There, tight communities develop around single synagogues. It's just different here -- where not all members of the popular "J" (the local nickname for the community center) are even Jewish.

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