Sarah Ellis doesn’t much care for heights, but that didn’t stop the 20-year-old from scaling the towering scaffolding inside the old Crosstown Theater on Sunday to scrape, sand and paint the building’s ceiling.
After all, some things are more important than a little personal discomfort.
Like putting faith into action.
And that’s what Ellis and hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been doing every weekend for the last two months, when they began refurbishing the historic theater. The building, purchased 30 years ago for use as the Assembly Hall for Mid-
South Jehovah’s Witnesses, is getting a $1.3 million makeover thanks to a 100 percent volunteer workforce that’s funded by donations.
“I’ll definitely come back to work again,” said Ellis, a stay-at-home mom from Jonesboro, Ark. “It’s an amazing experience to see everybody working together and getting along and committed to a common goal.”
The Midtown landmark at 400 N. Cleveland was once a favorite hangout for Elvis Presley and pals. It opened on May 18, 1951, and closed May 5, 1976. Malco Theaters sold the building in 1977 to the Mid-South congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The renovation got under way on May 24 and is scheduled to be completed in mid-October. During the course of the project, thousands of volunteers are expected to participate, performing myriad jobs from electrical work to plumbing to cooking meals for the masses.
For Memphis artist Jared Small, it means creating a series of murals depicting biblically inspired scenes.
“I want to contribute in the best way I can, so for me that’s painting,” said Small, 26. “I’m happy to be part of this and know I’m doing something worthwhile with my art.”
It’s a seven-day-a-week undertaking, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with breaks for meals and religious education services. Most volunteers are from Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and work weekend shifts, but there are dozens of long-term workers from the Mid-South and the country who use vacation time to spend a week or two or more in Memphis to get the job done.
“I feel like having a share in this is one of the best ways I can spend my time,” said Abraham Long, 56, a concrete finisher from Jackson, Tenn. “In fact, I’d feel bad if I didn’t spend my free time like this.”
While the property was used for years by Jehovah’s Witnesses in 139 Mid-South congregations for circuit assemblies and other programs, the aging space had become too limited. Rather than sell the property, which was discussed as an option several years ago, leaders chose to refurbish.
The renovated Assembly Hall will be completely handicap-accessible and include a 1,500-seat auditorium with baptismal pool, two cafeterias, three apartments for visitors and rooms for educational programs.
Alfred Jones, chairman of the committee overseeing the project, said getting to this point took more than two years. That included developing a database of trained and novice workers, determining the amount of materials necessary and seeking bids from building suppliers.
“I think it will positively impact the local community and give us the proper space we need for our educational programs,” said Jones, 74, of Memphis. “It’s something we’ll be using for a long time to come.”
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