Downtown Charleston congregations cope with big changes

April 1, 2017
FOR RELEASE SATURDAY, APRIL 1, 2017, AT 12:01 A.M. EDT.- This photo taken March 19, 2017, shows parishioners worshipping at Mount Zion AME Church in Charleston,S.C. (Leroy Burnell/The Post And Courier via AP)
FOR RELEASE SATURDAY, APRIL 1, 2017, AT 12:01 A.M. EDT.- This photo taken March 19, 2017, shows parishioners worshipping at Mount Zion AME Church in Charleston,S.C. (Leroy Burnell/The Post And Courier via AP)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The Greater Macedonia Church building on Alexander Street in downtown Charleston is for sale. So is the Mount Carmel AME Church building on Rutledge Avenue. The old Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church at the end of Cannon Street sits empty.

The congregation of Plymouth Congregational Church has relocated to the West Ashley area of Charleston. Shiloh AME Church is moving, too.

The Charleston peninsula is losing churches, even as new residents stream into the three-county metropolitan area.

Other religious institutions downtown are managing to hang on, even thrive, in this dynamic period of change. Mt. Zion AME Church on Glebe Street packs them in each Sunday, even if parking can be hard to secure. Worshippers trek from the suburbs to historic sanctuaries such as Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue on Hasell Street and Bethel United Methodist Church at Calhoun and Pitt streets.

“It’s not a matter of convincing, it’s a matter of offering something,” said the Rev. Cress Darwin, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church.

Urban change downtown impacts these various houses of worship differently. The change is hard to miss: The population of the three-county metropolitan area is growing (by about 45 people a day, according to one recent estimate), and as it swells, so does the demand for real estate.

Existing properties are going up in value; new homes and apartment buildings, are under construction left and right.

The result is that many low- and middle-income residents on the peninsula are feeling the squeeze. Some are moving away in search of more affordable housing or to take advantage of high property prices. Those who are moving to the peninsula tend to be upper-income people, often from faraway places.

Over the decades, African-Americans, who once lived throughout the downtown area, have migrated northward, forming strongholds in the Eastside, Westside, North Central, Elliotborough and Cannonborough neighborhoods. But those neighborhoods now are gentrifying, with new restaurants, shops, apartment buildings and office buildings opening regularly as students, professionals and young families move in.

The population of the Charleston peninsula was 70,000 in 1950. By 2010 it had declined to a little under 35,000. Between 1950 and 1980, two-thirds of the peninsula’s white population moved to the suburbs. But since 1980, the black population has dropped more than 55 percent, becoming the minority.

The peninsula has only about 5,000 single-family homes, though the number of apartment units, with very few considered “affordable” under federal guidelines, is increasing. Meanwhile the suburbs are spreading out.

One result of all this for houses of worship on the peninsula is that most of their congregants drive in from other places, often struggling to find a parking space. Some would prefer to worship closer to home in North Charleston or West Ashley, according to several pastors interviewed for this story.

Some are looking for a more comprehensive experience: Sunday worship to be sure, but also weekday programming and family-focused events. The bells and whistles can be hard to provide at a downtown church with limited physical resources, says the Rev. Dr. Lawrence E. Gordon, pastor of Greater Macedonia AME Church.

Gordon soon will take his congregation to a new campus on Savage Road in West Ashley that will offer opportunities to expand church ministries. The property was purchased, with great foresight, in 1998, Gordon said. Now the church is raising $2 million to begin construction. The sale of the downtown building will help a lot.

“At this point, we have no way to expand,” he said. “We have no parking. The overwhelming majority are ready to move.”

Greater Macedonia once sat in the midst of “The Borough,” or Ansonborough Homes, a housing development that once stood at what is now called Gadsdenboro Park near the S.C. Aquarium. The current church building went up in 1965. Before Hurricane Hugo rolled through in 1989, that area was still a vibrant, mostly black neighborhood that extended through Ansonborough across East Bay Street and north of Calhoun Street, into Wraggborough and the Eastside.

At least four popular AME churches served the area — Macedonia, Mother Emanuel, Ebenezer and Morris Brown — as well as a couple of smaller ones.

In the early 1980s, Macedonia alone had about 600 members, though it could only accommodate about 200 in the pews at a time, according to longtime parishioner Robert Campbell.

Hugo caused severe flooding of Ansonborough Homes, and soon after, the neighborhood was declared toxic and condemned. Its residents took whatever insurance money they managed to secure and moved away.

Today, the old black neighborhoods on the east side of the peninsula are increasingly white. AME churches such as Greater Beard’s Chapel and St. Phillip are reminders of a time when many more African-Americans lived in this part of town.

When Gordon arrived at Macedonia in 2010, membership had dwindled to just under 200. Today it’s up to 270 and noticeably lacking young people, he said.

“Young people are going to nondenominational, informal churches,” Gordon noted. “There’s just no longer that church loyalty.”

Macedonia has a Young Adult Ministry, and it taps into the AME Church’s Young People Division, which serves more than 600 South Carolina congregations, but it can be an uphill battle, he said.

In West Ashley, Macedonia will have room to grow. Many of the worshippers who drive to church will continue to do so, of course, but everything — weddings, funerals, special activities, parking — will become easier.

“The new sanctuary will hold 600,” Gordon said.

The dynamism on the peninsula is somewhat unique to Charleston, a city whose downtown is inhabited by many.

In Columbia, for example, the downtown zone largely consists of office buildings, public institutions, retail shops and restaurants. The neighborhoods where people live are not far away, and some residents travel easily to downtown churches.

Myrtle Beach, instead, has no centralized “downtown.” Its churches thrive or fail mostly due to what happens, or fails to happen, inside of them.

The black congregation of Zion Olivet Presbyterian Church left its Cannon Street building in 2015 and settled in a sanctuary at 3347 Rivers Ave., just east of Cosgrove Avenue.

“We were landlocked,” said Marie T. Simmons, the church’s administrative secretary. Parking was limited, there was no room to grow and most of the worshippers didn’t live nearby. Some drove from as far away as Adam’s Run and Goose Creek, Simmons said.

Now, the congregation has room to breathe and, as a result, it’s starting to grow, she said.

Over the years, Brith Shalom Beth Israel synagogue, an Orthodox Jewish congregation, has contemplated relocation to West Ashley, especially since most of the Jewish families who once lived in the Hampton Park area moved to the suburbs starting in the 1960s and 1970s. But an attachment to the building, a commitment to the centrality of the peninsula and a reverence for history has kept the congregation in place, even as Jewish life in West Ashley and Mount Pleasant has blossomed.

Historically, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Thomas Street served professional and middle-class black families living on the peninsula, beginning shortly after the Civil War. Over the years, its membership has dwindled. Internecine disputes, population shifts and, most recently, the challenge of balancing heritage with diversity and survival, has made it difficult for the parish to define a clear course to the future.

But no one is giving up. The congregation of St. Mark’s has embraced a progressive, inclusive approach to church life, and its historic wood-framed building, replete with stunning stained-glass windows, is nestled in a residential part of town that includes students, young families and old-timers.

In 2006, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church on Wentworth Street, a 150-year-old congregation, and 60-year-old Holy Comforter Lutheran in West Ashley merged and relocated to a campus on Bees Ferry Road. Late last year, its new sanctuary opened, featuring in its apse, above the altar, the Good Shepard window, a luminous stained-glass image of Jesus that was rescued from the old St. Andrew’s building.

Some well-established churches on the Charleston peninsula are doing fine, even flourishing, despite the demographic and economic changes afoot. Increasingly, people shop around for the right church home, so the more a church can do to serve its community of worshippers the better, Darwin said.

Second Presbyterian has, among other things, added weekday programming, bolstered its preschool and women’s group, and hosted a college ministry called The Journey, led by Colin Kerr. It also engages with the wider community, hosting the Charleston Gospel Choir and participating in city’s Illumination Project.

As a result, the congregation, which includes commuters, longtime parishioners and young professionals living on the peninsula, has been growing a bit, Darwin said. An average Sunday service will draw 130-150. Ultimately, it’s about “keeping the main thing the main thing” while leveraging the essential purpose of the church to achieve broader goals, he said.

“When you point to Jesus Christ, you get to do a bunch of other things.”

Some churches, regardless of their location, are a magnet for people with certain proclivities. Worshippers come to Circular Congregational Church, one of the city’s oldest, mostly because of the church’s embrace of progressive causes and its emphasis on social justice.

“There are very, very few people who can walk to church at Circular,” noted its pastor, the Rev. Jeremy Rutledge. “So we are not a neighborhood church. We are not filling a geographical need as much as we are filling a theological or philosophical need.”

The congregation is unapologetically inclusive, and its reform-minded denomination — United Church of Christ — mostly has expressed liberal views on LGBT rights, civil rights, women’s rights and other social and economic issues.

“Questions are welcome,” Rutledge said.

People also come to Circular to tap into its deep history.

“There is a felt connection to ancestors and history, and some of that history is work for justice,” Rutledge said. “So we talk a lot about how we work for justice in our moment, and how our ancestors worked for it in their moment. ... That grounds people, too.”

Circular now draws about 250-300 people on an average Sunday morning. Rutledge said he’s seen some growth in his five years there, enough to add a second service.

At Morris Brown AME Church on Morris Street, the Rev. James Keeton is just finding his sea legs. He arrived in November from a brief posting in Erie, Pennsylvania. Before that he served five years at a church in Camden, N.J. Hailing from southern Georgia, he is glad to be back in the South, closer to family, he said.

Morris Brown, like Circular, lures congregants from places well off the peninsula, including West Ashley, North Charleston, Goose Creek and Summerville. The church is blessed with a large parking lot and two vans that transport worshippers to and fro.

“Attendance is not what it used to be, but it’s still pretty good,” Keeton said. Up to 400 people attend a typical Sunday service.

Also like Circular, this historic AME congregation embraces social justice as part of its identity.

“Morris Brown is one of the principal participants in the Charleston Area Justice Ministry,” Keeton said, referring to a local coalition of churches and synagogues, to which Circular, KKBE and about 30 other congregations across the area belong. “We’re all in this together. We know our community is larger than race, larger than denomination.”

This emphasis on community building and outreach is a clear motivator for Morris Brown members.

“We definitely want to be a force for God in the at-large community,” Keeton said.

But he is aware that many millennials, about 30 percent, consider themselves agnostic or unaffiliated; they don’t prioritize church like older generations. And if they do come, they often don’t return.

“Too often, people come in the front door and go out the back door,” he said. “So we want to use the side doors more” — by which he means transform the church into a destination. “We have to get back to being the center of the culture, the center of the community.”


Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com