The Community of St. Ninian is a small Christian Covenant Community which meets together for worship, prayer, study and service. The Knoxville-based Community is a non-profit Christian organization reaching out specifically to those in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-, and questioning communities.
In July of 1991, Rev. Bob Galloway preached a sermon at the Metropolitan Community Church of Knoxville (MCCK) outlining the vision for a house of hospitality to provide a space for gays and lesbians in transition. This grew out of his and the church’s experience of the need. When little interest was shown in taking this on as an MCCK project, he talked with some individuals about making it a separate project and also about creating an intentional Christian covenant community.
The first meeting of this group was held on September 20, 199l. The meeting was attended by ten adults and two children. The group elected officers Jean Wiseheart as secretary, Dale Watermulder as treasurer, and Bob Galloway as president. It was decided to work toward the establishment of an ecumenical committed Christian community whose mission would be to provide hospitality in various forms that would eventually include a house of hospitality to be called St. Ninian’s Well. A schedule of meetings was determined and steps necessary to establish the community were identified and assigned to volunteers in the group.
In October of 1991 the group received a federal employee identification number, opened a bank account and started the development of a contributors list. In addition, work was done on an independent study and sharing of insights on community and the purpose of the Community of St. Ninian. Work continued on a mission statement, a covenant and a statement of faith. In January of 1992, the Community filed with the state of Tennessee to become incorporated as a church and adopted a mission statement, a member’s covenant and an associate’s covenant. February saw the development of by-laws and a statement of faith.
In August of 1992, the first four persons signed the covenant of membership. In the next two months another member and an associate were added. A facilities committee started the process of setting up criteria for locating St. Ninian’s Well and beginning the search process. Also, during 1992 activities included developing and distributing a brochure about the Community, participating in the gay pride parade, helping a few persons with housing, encouraging a member in starting a gay men’s discussion group and several studies. Fun and fellowship activities included music nights, games, a concert and regular Friday evening meals.
Late in 1993 the 501(c)(3) tax exempt status was received from the Internal Revenue Service. Other activities continued as in 1992. Also, the Community marched in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade and the first Maundy Thursday Seder was held.
Preparation for purchasing a house continued, including determining criteria for what was needed in a house, approving operating principles and guidelines for guests, and increasing financial assets. Late in 1994 a suitable house was found and the purchase was finalized early in 1995. St. Ninian’s Well was dedicated on February 24, 1995. The mortgage was paid off in 2005.
During the next twenty-plus years St. Ninian’s Well became a fixture in the community. Over 150 guests were housed at the Well. They were male and female, trans, gay and non-gay, ranging in age from five to in their sixty’s, African-American and Caucasian. The shortest stay was one day and the longest stay was over a year. The Well was also the home for Community-sponsored events such as soup suppers, ice cream socials, dessert buffets, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Christmas open house, Seders and other gatherings, in addition to the regular meal and worship. In addition, the Well was used by other community groups for meetings, trainings and workshops. Many community individuals and groups helped with St. Ninian’s Well.
The 100-year-old house seemed to always be in need of repairs, but was serviceable for its purpose. Continuous repairs and upgrades were made. When the garage collapsed, the space was repurposed as a “ruins garden” that became a beautiful space for outdoor gatherings, worship and prayer.
The Community of St. Ninian remained active in the community, including participating in Martin Luther King, Jr. marches and rallies and Gay Pride events. In addition to providing short-term housing at the Well, the Community provided financial assistance to individuals for food, housing, utilities and medication, and helped with transportation. Financial donations were also made to groups such as Strength for the Journey (for persons with HIV/AIDS), Family Promise, InterFaith Health Clinic, Volunteer Ministries, LEAF, Faith Coalition and others.
Membership in the Community has varied through the years, ranging from a low of three persons to a high of twelve, and ranging in age from a person in her teens to a person in her nineties. There has also always been a continuous stream of friends and supporters who participate in the Community. 2014 was a difficult year when Dale Watermulder, one of the founding members, died. He had served as Bursar from the beginning. In 2015 Bob Galloway gave up his role as Prior. This was a watershed time for the Community. Jan Thomas was selected as the new Prior. At a Community retreat, an intentional decision was made to continue as a group and to seek direction while continuing the ministry of St. Ninian’s Well.
During the summer of 2016 there was an emerging consensus among the Community that it was not feasible to continue housing guests at the Well. The Community became aware of changes in the law regarding the status of guests as residents which called into question the practice of providing short-term housing. In addition, the changing needs of and for the ministry, the significant maintenance needs of the house, and the reality of what members and associates were able and willing to do let to the unanimous decision that it was time to end the ministry of St. Ninian’s Well.
In September of 2016 the Community deeded the Well over to the Carpetbag Theatre. Their mission is to “give artistic voice to the issues and dreams of people who have been silenced by racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of oppression.” A service of decommissioning was held. It was an evening of gratitude, memories, grief, relinquishment and anticipation of the future into which God is leading the Community.
The Community met in the home of one of the members for a few years and now has found a home at Church of the Savior. The Community continues to meet twice a month for a meal, worship, business, discernment and fellowship, and also enjoys occasional special activities.
The Community continues to pursue the mission of hospitality (and particularly, care for persons experiencing homelessness) through association with Family Promise of Knoxville. Family Promise helps homeless families with children achieve sustainable independence. They provide temporary housing in churches as well as other services including a day center with laundry facilities, bathrooms, internet connections and study and play space for children. There is a professional case management staff to develop an individualized plan for each family to address the factors that led to their homeless and to build the skills needed to find and maintain housing. Families are also linked to social services, employment possibilities, education and job skills training, health care, day care and any needed services. Follow-up services help prevent a return to homelessness. The Community of St. Ninian is a "support congregation" including providing meals and hosting in cooperation with a host congregation. Family Promise welcomes families with gay/lesbian parents and participation from gay-friendly groups such as the Community of St. Ninian.
The Community is also able to continue to provide financial assistance to individuals who fall within the Community’s understanding of its mission, and financially supports non-profit and charity groups that are aligned with its ministry.
All of this activity has been possible only because of the commitment of those who have covenanted together and the friends and contributors who continue to support this work with prayers, energy, time, finance, and love. What no one person can do alone, the Community has been able to do.