CHARLOTTE — More than a decade ago, Tonyia Rawls came to Charlotte charged with a mission. Her denomination, the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, had tasked her with finding a home for their first congregation in the South.

Rawls now presides as bishop over four growing churches; including her own, she also oversees parishes in D.C., Atlanta and Charleston. In the years since its founding, Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte has grown with its hometown and denomination. The church body is now making new and exciting steps toward future growth.

Their new Lighthouse Project is a capital campaign to raise money for a renovated and expanded facility the church already owns at the corner of Eastway and Kilborne Drs. In addition to the church, the new facility will also house Rawls’ Freedom Center for Social Justice.

The Freedom Center started three years ago, inspired by the needs of East Charlotte students at Garinger High School. Tutoring and career development were the center’s first projects.

Though national in scope, Rawls says the tutoring project is a good example of the center’s social justice focus and its willingness to keep an eye on Charlotte.

“While we are doing national work it is impossible to do that without thinking of our own house and for us that is this region,” she says, pointing to a list of challenges ranging from housing, healthcare and education.

“We can go down the list of all this bad stuff and we have those [in East Charlotte],” she cautions, “but we also have some of the best numbers — some of the wealthiest people in Charlotte live in this ZIP code and some of the greatest growth in the city is happening in this ZIP code. There’s also some really dynamic and progressive work that is happening in this ZIP code.”

She says her church’s and center’s neighborhood is a “complex area” with unique needs. Such a situation presents both challenge and opportunity.

“I think East Charlotte is a gift to Charlotte,” she says. “What we have there is an incredible opportunity to build something really magnificent that I think can showcase the best of us all.” : :

Learn more about the Freedom Center for Social Justice at

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.