Freedom Journey

an exploration of peace, justice, service, and truth.

Memphis, TN

About Freedom Journey

We’ll connect you with people and experiences that make a difference in the world - with a focus on Social Justice: civil rights activist, artist, actors, housing experts, food ministry, musical and dance experiences, tours and an opportunity to discuss your thoughts thru interactive discussions. You choose the programs and activities that interest your group – we will put it together for you.


You can also experience all that Memphis has to offer:


We are a dynamic city that is known for its “soul”. You can explore the incredible music legacy of Memphis by visiting Soulsville USA, STAX Records, Sun Studios that has hosted some of the biggest legends in music, or Graceland – famed former home of Elvis Presley. Also, feel the rhythm and energy of one of Memphis’s biggest tourist attractions - Beale Street.


Memphis is home to The National Civil Rights Museum, a living testament to the life of Martin Luther King and the history of the racial equality movement. Memphis is also home to the world-renowned St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.


For an outdoor experience, Big River Crossing is the country’s longest active/bicycle/pedestrian bridge. Catch a basketball game with our Memphis Grizzlies at the FedEx Forum or a baseball game with our AAA Memphis Red Birds at AutoZone Park. Our Zoo is the home of 3,500 animals and our very own Panda’s. 


Relax at Shelby Farms Park with 4,500 acres of urban nature at its finest-one of the largest parks in the US.  Wildlife can be observed in their natural environment from the many trails in the park. Shelby Farms Park is home to a bison herd.  For activities, they offer cycling, treetop rope course, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, and sailing.


About Us

Who Makes This All Possible

First Congregational is a part of the United Church of Christ, a denomination of about 6,000 churches across the country, tracing our roots back to the Pilgrims who believed so strongly in living our faith in the world.

First Congregational was founded over 150 years ago by people who believed that slavery was wrong, that women could preach and that Christians could change the world through the power of God's love.   Known during the Civil War era as Strangers Congregational Church, a place where strangers and those adrift in a strange land of Protestant fundamentalism could find sanctuary, the congregation changed its name to First Congregational in 1909.   


In 1991, we became an "Open and Affirming" congregation by stating that we welcome gay and lesbian people into the church, just as we welcome all people. As a "Just Peace" congregation, we are committed to working for justice and reconciliation among all people.  


We at First Congo as we are now affectionately known - are a diverse congregation with an emphasis on art, social justice and partnership.   


The Experience

We are happy to work with you to design your own unique Freedom Journey experience based on your interest, length of stay, age or other group needs.  Below are some of the program's we currently offer.   We are continually developing new dynamic programs within the social justice platform.

We had a wonderful time and are still talking about our Freedom Journey experience. We are grateful for everyone who had a part in making our experience one that we will never forget. I don't know how any other mission trip will ever top that experience!


Reverend Robin Lyn Valdez
Pastor, Emmanuel Presbyterian Church
Bedford, Texas

The feedback from the students was amazing!  Many of them stated they wish we would have experienced your Freedom Journey earlier on the tour because of the bonding that occurred.  Please extend our thanks to the instructors.

Renee A. Thomas, Director

Purdue University Black Cultural Center

Provost Fellow for Diversity and Inclusion

Slave Haven

When you enter the white clapboard house you will see displays of ads, auctions and artifacts that help tell the story of slavery and the Underground Railroad. The Burkle Estate was built in 1849 by Jacob Burkle, livestock trader and bakery owner, who opened his home to help slaves escape to freedom.


The house has 19th century furnishings but its main feature is the secret cellar and trap doors that offered refuge to runaway slaves. This dark cellar was their home for days as they sat silently waiting for boats that would take them to other way stations upriver on their way to freedom in the northern states. After stepping down into the cellar and kneeling on the brick floor of this cramped room, you definitely get a deeper understanding of the slaves’ plight.


The tour gives information on slave trade, runaway slaves and the message system and travel patterns of escaping slaves.

Prison Stories

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Elaine Blanchard is a storyteller. She has many stories to tell from her life as a writer, registered nurse, ordained UCC minister and creator of a creative writing and performance program, “Prison Stories,” in the Shelby County Jail for Women. In 2010, Elaine went into the jail and began listening to the stories told by incarcerated women.


She writes a script, based on the stories shared, and recruits professional actors to stage performances both inside the jail for all the women in the jail and in local theaters, sharing the stories with people outside the prison system, allowing them to respect and value what has happened to women, causing them to be incarcerated. Blanchard says, “People make mistakes. People get into trouble. But all of us are so much more than the mistakes and the troubles we have experienced.”


For her work as a community activist, minister and performer, Elaine was awarded the 2015 “Woman of Vision” award by Memphis Women of Achievement. Learn more about Elaine’s work on her web



First Congo Food Justice Ministries

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Recent polls have indicated that Memphis had more "food insecure" people -- that is, people who did not know where their next meal was coming from -- than any other city. 


First Congregational  decided to do something about  this.  We started small--offering sandwiches, drinks, etc. to people who stopped by the church.  Now we offer lunch 5 days a week for around 500 people per week.  


Cafe Congo is a weekday lunch program.  Monday through Friday, from 11:00 am - 1:00 pm, folks can come by for a hot nutritional lunch.  


We also have The Food Pantry were we distribute groceries twice a week to around 150 households.  And those numbers keep growing. 


This is a great service opportunity and a way to learn more about the "hunger" challenges we face in Memphis.

Memphis Area

Gay Youth – Dialogue

MAGY strives to be a place of belonging and connection for youth ages 13-20 looking for a welcoming and safe environment where they can be themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight. We believe this sense of place and diversity empowers youth to know they are valued.

MAGY advisors are committed to being positive roles models who offer consistent leadership mentorship, structure, education, and resources. This commitment is designed to offer MAGY youth and their peers the life skills that create a roadmap to individual success.

What Is Your Sign?

Signs and protests were inseparable in the 1960s, with words painted or printed large scale to produce maximum impact when photographed or filmed by the media. Like a visual bullhorn, they both amplified and unified the voices fighting injustice. 


With What is Your Sign, we offer you an artistic opportunity to express yourself using the civil rights movement as a backdrop to explore peacemaking.


Through learning traditional West African rhythm – this is one of Youth Villages’ most innovative Expressive Therapy services. Youth Villages is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. This program has operated since 1996 and serves 400-500 children and youth weekly in Tennessee and Georgia. 

Observed benefits include increased attention span in the classroom, greater cooperation with peers and adults, improved self-confidence, use of drumming as a coping strategy for anger and depression, improved frustration tolerance and a general lifting of mood. 

Youth who begin a session saying they feel angry, depressed, hopeless, irritated and bored report that after 45 minutes of drumming they feel happy, energized, hopeful, connected to their group and expecting the best from the rest of their day.

West African Dance

When Africans were forcibly sold out of Africa; across the Atlantic Ocean into foreign lands, they were often totally detached from their own language communities and ethnic groups. One of the cultural forms which helped people to survive and communicate with one another, was music and dance.


These two art forms could communicate across the language barrier that divided the different ethnic groups, that would in most cases, be on the same ship. It was learned to be used as a tool of survival, even though every dance, from every ethnic group, has a completely different meaning. Dance was an integral part of daily life among African American slaves. Observations of slave culture, particularly on the southern plantation, yield evidence of a layering of traditional African tribal dance practices shared, blended, and reinvented in the new world.


In this class, your group will have the opportunity to dance with a young man - Marcus Hunt who comes from the African culture and has trained in the art for over 20 years. This is a very fun and enlightening experience. As long as you’re open to the culture, you will find this class extremely informative and active.

At The River I Stand

Julia Hicks has been the Director of Missions at First Congregational Church since 2001.


She will lead the group in 2 sessions:


The group will view an award-winning documentary AT THE RIVER I STAND followed by a discussion. The film will Introduce you to Memphis through the Civil Rights Movement as it happens through the Sanitation Works Strike, which unexpectedly brought Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis and ultimately to his death.  Also from the perspective of a Memphis resident during those turbulent times.


Julia will  then meet with your group at the end of your journey for a wrap-up and discussion.

Founded in 1995, Voices of the South is a Memphis based non-profit theatre company that creates, produces, and performs theatre from diverse Southern perspectives. With deep roots in Narrative Theatre, their work includes award-winning new plays and adaptations of literature.

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Building an inclusive community by getting people on bicycles.

We opened our doors in the basement of First Congo at 1000 South Cooper St. in June of 2002 with the intention of saving the world, one bicycle at a time.


That summer, Revolutions built a shop where people could rehabilitate and recycle bicycles. We dedicated ourselves to providing all Memphians—particularly the working poor of Memphis—with bicycles that function well.


We wanted to create a place where people could acquire the tools and knowledge to keep bicycles rolling, and more importantly, to make a positive impact on the community one bicyclist at a time.

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This organizations’ primary focuses are improving housing, and providing residents with counseling on home ownership and financial responsibility in an economically depressed area of North Memphis.

To date, the organization has rehabilitated 194 houses, sold 98 properties, and rents/leases an additional 96 properties.


The Frayser CDC has counseled over 2000 households in acquiring and maintaining homeownership to men and woman who though being a homeowner was just an unobtainable dream.

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The museum offers 260 artifacts, more than 40 new films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts that guide visitors through five centuries of history — from the beginning of the resistance during slavery, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the seminal events of the late 20th century that inspired people around the world to stand up for equality.

Blessed Bees

Honey bees play a vital role in our lives. Seed plants produce fruit after pollinators such as bees and butterflies pollinate them by inadvertently transporting pollen from male to female flower parts. It is estimated that three-quarters of flowering plants require pollinators in order to produce fruit.

We have three beehives that we use to teach about bees, to show support for bees as they struggle for survival, to help pollinate our raised bed garden -- and we get wonderful honey, harvested several times a year by an enthusiastic team of volunteers, learning together and led by Keith Norman.

A minimum-wage worker would have to put in lots of overtime to be able to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. And downsizing to a one-bedroom barely helps.

The Fight for $15 began in 2012 when two hundred fast-food workers walked off the job to demand $15/hr and union rights in New York City.

Today, they are a global movement in over 300 cities on six continents.


They are fast-food workers, home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees – and underpaid workers everywhere

Playback Memphis brings stories to life in a safe space to unlock healing, transformation, and joy.


Their vision is a Memphis that shares a culture of connectivity and emotional intelligence throughout all facets of the community. 


“The group interaction and performances can be incredibly effective in getting people to consider some serious issues in a non-threatening, supportive, but thought – provoking ways.”

Civil Rights Tour with Mark Allen

The City of Memphis serves as the setting to explore a rich history in the civil rights movement.  Mark is our very own city historian and takes you to sites that are tucked away throughout the city. He shares stories of some of the lesser-known civil rights activist and of Black Freedom struggles.  A walk thru time  - from slavery and segregation to present day.

First Congo carries a  sense of social justice into the twenty-first century -  pastored for 30 plus years by the Reverend Cheryl Cornish, a native Nebraskan with a divinity degree from Yale. 


 “It creates a tremendous amount of joy and energy to know we’re about something meaningful, positive and healing.  I’ve always cared a lot about how we transform society.  I think that’s what being a Christian is all about:  bringing healing to the world.” Rev Cornish highlights the foundation of her pastorate.  


Also, our Associate Pastor Rev. Sonia Louden Walker who joined First Congo's ministerial staff in 2008.  She was drawn to First Congo through our Social Justice work.   "That was like the Jesus I always knew," she says. "I came from the AME [African Methodist Episcopal] church and so my God was always bigger than our individual concepts of race and class."

Come join us for our Sunday service at 10:30am.  A typical Sunday service in our bright sanctuary, with its old windows, labyrinth, and a beautiful wood altar, designed to feel like a “kitchen table,” welcomes 225 to 250 parishioners, 270 on a big Sunday.


We have two separate options for affordable and secure lodging:

Retreat Center & Hostel Memphis both facilities are in our building. 

Retreat Center/Urban Camp

We provide dormitory-style housing for groups with up to 40 + people. There are 4 separate rooms that accommodate 8 or 13 guests. 

You will have access to an indoor gathering area along with a large outdoor deck -  for simple meals or just fellowship. Shared with Retreat Center Guests - we have one male and one female bathroom and an additional shower room. 

Rates will depend on season, length of stay and group size: Range: $10 - $15 per night per person.  If needed, there is an additional charge for linens and towels of $15 per person.

Continental breakfast and catered meals can be added at an additional charge. 


Please contact us for a rate quote


Hostel Memphis


Hostel Memphis is a comfortable, communal space for our Freedom Journey guest.
Our facilities include common areas, full baths, well-equipped kitchen and food storage options for guests.  And our spacious outdoor deck. 

We have shared bunk rooms available and also private rooms with linens included. Free Breakfast, and wifi..


Please check our website for the current rates and availability:


15+ participants

$250 per person

Price includes 5 days of Freedom Journey programs. Lodging, meals and tour tickets are additional

Less than

15 participants

$300 per person

Price includes 5 days of Freedom Journey programs. Lodging, meals and tour tickets are additional


We can create a custom package for shorter or longer journeys and individuals.


Contact Us to Get Started

For more information and rate quotes contact:


Ellen Lawler

Coordinator of Residential Ministries 


1000 South Cooper

Memphis, TN  38104


1000 Cooper St,

Memphis, TN 38104, USA​


© 2018 by Freedom Journey.



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