For the past six years, Methodist Moving Day meant nothing to the Rev. Gary Robbins’ congregation at Greene Memorial United Methodist Church. This year, it means the downtown Roanoke church will part with a pastor, a leader and a friend.
“It’s hard to talk about without crying. It’s a very emotional time. We’re all going to miss him here,” said Debbie Brown, director of Greene Memorial’s program ministries.
Each year, the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church appoints ministers to churches statewide. Ministers who mesh well with a particular church can be reappointed for a few years before reassignment. Others transfer more frequently. Annual “Moving Days” were organized to avoid any overlap in ministers’ first and last days serving a particular congregation. Robbins has been reappointed to Greene Memorial each year since his arrival in 2007. June 26 marks the first Moving Day in six years that Robbins will travel to a new congregation.
He preached his last sermon at Greene Memorial on Sunday.
“Greene Memorial Church is a noble church with a noble legacy of service. It’s a legacy of service that I value and am proud of,” he said.
Robbins left a legacy during his tenure at Greene Memorial. He spearheaded a $2.25 million renovation project two years ago that helped open the church’s doors to members of the downtown community. Habitat for Humanity, Relay for Life, Alcoholics Anonymous, diabetes support groups and other organizations have all taken advantage of Greene Memorial’s updated facilities.
“We wanted to have spaces that could be used by us as a congregation and spaces the community could use as well,” Robbins said. “We’ve been really pleased with the number of nonprofit and community groups that can come and utilize our space.”
Carol Tuning, chairwoman of the Blue Ridge Continuum of Care, said Robbins spent time working with the homeless in Roanoke. She said he organized workshops, offering direction and support to those in need.
“He would have focus groups with the homeless in the community to see how they’re doing and if they have enough information,” said Tuning. “Things like that have been so helpful to us, and we are so sorry to see him go.”
Robbins says Greene Memorial’s downtown location, at the corner of Second Street and Church Avenue, exposed him to a full range of Roanoke residents. He wrote in a recent newsletter about praying with a homeless man while eating lunch in Lee Plaza, across the street from Greene Memorial.
“One day you are chatting with the mayor, listening to a concert, or meeting a downtown entrepreneur — and a few days later you are sharing a bench in Lee Plaza, praying with a homeless man,” Robbins wrote. “That doesn’t happen in many churches.”
Robbins said he wants his legacy at Greene Memorial to be one of crossing boundaries. His partnership with First Baptist Church in Gainsboro, he said, helped bring more than 200 people to the top of Mill Mountain for Easter sunrise services.
He said during his tenure he invited almost 50 guest preachers of all colors, beliefs and denominations to speak at Greene Memorial’s 30-minute Wednesday noonday services, which will start again in September. Robbins found Greene Memorial at an intersection of two roads, he said. He leaves it as an intersection of many beliefs.
“Some people have never heard a Baptist preach before, or a Methodist, or a woman, or a rabbi. We’re creating opportunities for people to get out of their religious silos and stretch their hearts and minds a little bit,” Robbins said, noting that the Wednesday noonday service can attract upwards of 115 people. “It’s been well-received, and I think a lot of folks look forward to that little oasis during the middle of the week.”
Robbins leaves for Herndon United Methodist in Fairfax County on June 26. The move will put Robbins and his wife, Phyllis, closer to family in Northern Virginia.
Some Methodists say their church moves “from glory to glory,” when they get a new minister. Greene Memorial will move from glory to glory and Gary to Gary as Robbins is succeeded by the Rev. Gary Heaton. Heaton comes to Roanoke after spending 12 years at Front Royal United Methodist Church in Warren County.
Robbins said he has known Heaton for more than 30 years and believes the two share more than just a first name.
“He’s also in a church that’s downtown and surrounded by businesses. I think he really brings a lot of the same convictions that I have,” he said.