Asbury Memorial UMC was organized in 1909. The cornerstone of the sanctuary was placed in 1921 and the large Education Building was added in 1954. Asbury’s ministry flourished in the 1950’s and 60’s, but saw radical changes in the 1970’s and 80’s. By 1990, church attendance had shrunk to around twenty-five people and the average age of the members was eighty. The members had to face the possibility of closing the church doors.
In 1993, Asbury turned a corner. The church began to emphasize inclusiveness, the fine arts, and the positive news of Jesus Christ. As word spread, attendance and programs grew and continue to grow. We are very grateful to our older members who kept the faith and kept the doors of Asbury open. We hope you will be a part of Asbury history as we seek to experience God and grow in our faith through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
Why “The Clown” symbol?
Since 1993, Asbury Memorial has used a picture of a clown as a logo for the church. There are several reasons why the clown has become a meaningful symbol for the people of Asbury Memorial.
The 3 C’s for having the Asbury Clown:
Long before the Christ figure was portrayed as a clown in the popular musical, Godspell, the clown has been a Christian symbol throughout the history of Christianity. The apostle Paul writes, “We are fools for Christ’s sake … God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise.” In his book Perfect Fools, John Saward writes, “The fools for Christ’s sake are people made mad and merry by their faith in God – a God who appears silly in a manger and foolish on a cross.”
As Christians, we are called to be “Holy Fools” – to do what we believe God is calling us to do … even when the majority disagrees with us. This is especially meaningful for the people of Asbury Memorial because they appeared foolish by staying with the church through its difficult years, instead of closing its doors and moving as many had encouraged the members to do before 1993.
The Bible also says that “joy” is an important part of the Christian life. Jesus said, “I have said theses things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” The angel said, “I bring you news of great joy!” We sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” What better symbol for “joy” than a clown? The Asbury Clown reminds us of the “good news of Jesus Christ.”
The Bible tells us that the first thing God does is “create.” Thus, the first thing we learn about God is that God is a “Creator.” The book of Genesis also tells us that God breathed God’s spirit into us – so we, too, are filled with God’s creative spirit. As Asbury Memorial, we believe that if we are not creative, then we are not being who God created us to be or fulfilling God’s purpose. The clown has long been a symbol for the “arts,” so our Asbury Clown reminds us to be creative and artistic. This emphasis is especially experienced in our worship services through music, drama, liturgical dance, and the visual arts. We believe that it’s beneficial to worship God using all of our senses.
(We also have a community theatre that presents theatrical productions.)
Many years ago, the women of Asbury Memorial started a group called the “Busy Bees.” Every Monday, the group would meet to make “Clown Dolls.” At first, the main focus of the group was “fellowship,” but when the church struggled during the lean years, the profits made from the clown dolls helped pay the bills of the church. So, in a sense, “the clown” is partially responsible for keeping the church going. The clown symbol keeps us in touch with our past – with those hard-working “Busy Bees.” Many of these “saints” have gone on to be with God, but the memory of what they did will live on through the clown symbol.
The Busy Bees still meet today and continue to produce Clown Dolls. The dolls have been sold around the world. If you are interested in purchasing an Asbury Memorial Clown, you may do so by contacting the church office.
About Billy Hester
Reverend Billy Hester is a native of Savannah. Billy attended Valdosta State University where he received a BFA in Theatre in 1981. He then moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting. Billy had the lead roles in such shows as The Pirates of Penzance and Pippin, and was the lead tenor for the Light Opera of Manhattan. A sports enthusiast, Billy was thrilled to have the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden.
After a period of much prayer and reflection, Billy decided to attend seminary. He went on to graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity in 1989. From there, Billy served at Marble Collegiate Church, church of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. He also took Clinical Pastoral Education at New York Hospital and Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center.
The Minister's Wife: Cheri
While in New York, Billy met and married actress, Cheri Butcher. Cheri has performed in the Broadway shows, Singing in the Rain and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Cheri currently teaches dance at the Gretchen Greene School of Dance on Wilmington Island in Savannah and teaches drama at Oglethorpe Academy Middle School.
Besides being very active with the church, Cheri and Billy are also involved in a lot of work within the community. They also had the opportunity to give workshops on "Church Growth" and "Worship and the Arts" at conferences throughout the United States. Additionally, they are very active in raising their four children: Chelsea, Christi, and twins Wendell and Wesley.
Billy is well known for leading creative and meaningful worship services. He and Cheri often share their own artistic talents with the congregation. They are thrilled that Asbury Memorial, a church that almost closed a few years ago, is now growing and starting to thrive.
The Reason behind the 11:15 AM Worship Time
Billy had a vision for a ministry in a downtown, urban church - a place where diversity was celebrated. He believed Asbury Memorial was the perfect church. It was a large structure, but it was about to close. The church had only about 25 people attending worship and the average age member was 80 years old. The congregation could not afford paying the salary of a "full time" minister, so the United Methodist denomination appointed him to serve two churches - Asbury Memorial UMC and Wesley Oak UMC. Wesley Oak was also struggling and also only had about 25 people attending worship services. Both churches could pay part-time salaries.
In order for Billy to officiate both services, Wesley Oak would have their worship service at 9:30 a.m. and Asbury Memorial at 11:00 a.m. But it soon became clear that Billy needed a little more travel and preparation time, so Asbury moved their service time 15 minutes later to 11:15 a.m. Ironically, Marble Collegiate Church in NYC (the church that had made such an impact on the formation of Billy's faith) also begins their services at 11:15 a.m. Both Asbury Memorial and Wesley oak grew, and today, Wesley Oak UMC has their own full-time pastor and Billy is now full-time at Asbury. The 11:15 a.m. worship service time has stuck.
During Billy's early years at Asbury, an important epiphany occurred on an extremely hot Sunday in the summer of 1993. The air conditioner broke down and it was too hot to have the worship service in the sanctuary. The 35 people sitting in the large sanctuary got up and moved to have the worship service in what was then the choir room. The choir room sat about 25 to 30 people. Billy looked up to preach and realized that he had a packed house! It was standing room only! We needed a bigger room! From that day on, the people of Asbury began to see their church as a growing church, instead of a dying church. Today, even Asbury's choir has had to change rooms because the choir has outgrown the old choir room!
Join us at 11:15 AM for a unique Sunday worship experience that will make a profound difference in your life!