Charleston, South Carolina, Is Losing Churches Amid Changes

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.

On the move

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.

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SOURCE: The Post and Courier