In the five and a half years since it first organized, Grace Presbyterian Church in Dawsonville, Ga., has been through some big changes.

The church’s recent receipt of a $50,000 Walton Award grant is only the latest chapter in a story that includes the death of the organizing pastor, the founding of a free health clinic and the formation of the first Presbyterian church in the county.

The Walton Award — endowed for $3 million in 1991 by the late Sam and Helen Walton and given to five congregations this year — is an annual award for new church developments that further Presbyterian mission in their communities.

As the first Presbyterian church in Dawson County, Ga., Grace fits the bill, said Elder Carol Watkins, clerk of session.

“We’re thrilled,” she said. “Everyone was just like, ‘Hallelujah, praise the Lord!’”

When Grace was first organizing in 2005, several community members were unfamiliar with the Presbyterian Church, even wondering if it was a Christian denomination, Watkins said. But since then, Grace’s membership has grown to 126 people, including those from other or no church backgrounds and those who have been hurt by past church experiences.

The absence of a Presbyterian church in the area provided Grace with the challenge and opportunity to educate residents about the faith, said the Rev. Sara Hayden, director of the Tri-Presbytery New Church Development Commission, which has helped develop more than 30 new churches in Georgia. In Dawson County, Grace was able to show residents the interaction between faith and how a church lives into community.

“It’s a faith in response to the needs of the world,” Hayden said.

Watkins credited much of Grace’s presence in the community to its late organizing pastor, the Rev. Mark P. Weaver. Weaver died of a stroke in May 2010, just six months before Grace was chartered.

Now led by a transitional pastor, the Rev. Dana Hughes, Grace is looking for a full-time pastor while operating two large ministries: a soup kitchen and a free health clinic that serve the unemployed and working poor in Dawson County.

The health clinic — the first of its kind in the county — was recently incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) organization called the Good Shepherd Clinic of Dawson County. Staffed by one doctor and several nurses, the clinic has served about 200 uninsured patients. A gynecologist comes once a month, and the clinic hopes to add a dentist soon.

“(The community) loves us,” Watkins said. “We started some things they had never even thought of.”

Grace was also the first church in the county to serve a free Thanksgiving dinner for the poor. Other churches joined in, and the meal was eventually taken over by a charity that now serves 300 people at the annual dinner.

That kind of partnership with other local churches is also credited to Weaver, who got out the word about Grace all over the community, Watkins said. He formed an alliance of Dawson County churches, many of whom had never worked together before. The alliance now partners with job programs and local charities.

In addition to a presence in the community, Weaver helped Grace build its own identity as a church family. He asked the congregation for feedback at every step of the way, even asking whether members would prefer to say “trespasses” or “debts” during the Lord’s Prayer.

“He was all about training us to become a real Presbyterian church when we constituted,” Watkins said.

Grace formed a steering team, which operated on the same ground rules as a session. People became excited about buying in and offering opinions about what they wanted Grace to be, developing a vision statement and a list of core values:

  • Participate in Kingdom service
  • Build on a heritage
  • Embrace Christian growth
  • Express faith creatively
  • Foster open communication
  • Welcome all people as they are

The congregation ends every service by singing the refrain of “Bind Us Together”:

Bind us together, Lord, Bind us together
With cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together, Lord,
Bind us together,
Bind us together with love.

Grace was organized by the Tri-Presbytery New Church Development Commission, made up of Cherokee, Greater Atlanta and Northeast Georgia presbyteries. It bought and moved into an old church building in 2005. After hosting Bible studies with other Presbyterians and cleaning up the building , the commission hired Weaver as organizing pastor in September 2005.

Part of the money from the Walton Award will go to pay down the mortgage, Watkins said. The church is also getting estimates for other capital improvements, including energy-saving projects.

“(The Walton Award) feels like a confirmation of the collaboration we’ve been a part of,” Hayden said. “I feel like God has blessed the energy we’ve put behind working together and I think that’s a testimony to our connectional church.”

Weaver’s death caused much trauma for the congregation, but Watkins said there was never a question that Grace would forge on. In 2009, Weaver had applied for a Walton Award, but Grace was turned down. He had intended to apply again, and so after his death, Grace did so.

“We were committed to seeing it through and we have — and we’re continuing to do so,” Watkins said.