JOHNS ISLAND – Pews, chairs, doors, and hallways quickly filled at St. John’s United Methodist Church on Johns Island as four African- and three Anglo-American congregations gathered Aug. 30, a bright, hot, Sunday morning.
New Webster members arrived from Wadmalaw; Bethlehem UMs, St. James UMs and Wesley UMs from Johns Island; Epworth UMs from James Island, and Folly Beach UMs from the beach. Charleston district superintendent, the Rev. Patricia Parrish, also joined the islanders. who came ready to worship. After five months of praying and planning by the church leaders and chairperson, the Rev. Angelin J. Simmons, the big day was finally here.
The service as one united church began with a dramatic call to worship by Epworth’s lay leader, Jerry Pullen, which was written by Epworth’s Helen McGill. Eyes focused on a projected photo of each church and its representative as each spoke of many personal differences: “We are healthy. We are weak. We are hurting.” Then together the seven concluded: “We are all the same … We have one Creator. We are Children of God. We are Brothers and Sisters in Christ.”
The Rev. Rich Robinson of Epworth UMC started the praise and worship which linked Scripture and lyrics to his drum beats and double claps. The Epworth Praise Team, guitarists/singers Stu Moser, Trace Moser and Laura Benson, blended talents with Wesley’s Sharon Grant, Quintella Grant, Tamara Saunders, and Major. Media director Dick Cable of Epworth flashed the words across the back chancel wall. Spontaneously, the combined choir and congregation joined in the repetitions, lifting their hands and clapping. Both new and familiar songs such as “A New Hallelujah,” “One Way,” “Shine Jesus, Shine” and “This Little Light of Mine” brought wide smiles.
The high energy continued to flow as nine teens from the Johns Island Parish Liturgical Dance Group presented “Heaven.” Choreographer Jarvis White of St. James UMC said that the team enjoyed sharing their dance ministry which honors God.
Love of music provided a common link among the seven churches, especially through the creative versatility of Crystal Brown Gibson, a Wesley affiliate. She began directing the combined choir rehearsals prior to Aug. 30. During the service, Crystal, an accomplished keyboarder, played the prelude, postlude and hymns. Special music for the 30-member choir celebrated the occasion with Gibson’s own arrangements, “Lowcountry Spiritual Medley” and “Spirit, Fall Fresh on Me.” Soloist was Sharon Grant.
Traditional elements took on extra meaning in the diverse setting. The four pastors reached out with passionate words to connect the worshippers to God and to one another. In the opening prayer, the Rev. Alice L. Deal, pastor of St. John/Folly Beach, prayed: “By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice which separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love…” The Prayer of Confession and Words of Assurance were given by Robinson, who said, “Lord, we confess … we have built up walls of prejudice … Help us listen to your word of forgiveness.”
The Epistle Lesson, read by Simmons, pastor of Bethlehem/St. James/ New Webster, James 1:17-27, challenged the congregation to “reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.”
All sizes came forward for the children’s time to stand next to brand new friends and to meet Henrietta Mack of New Webster UMC who encouraged the children to share.
The offertory music was by an Epworth family trio, soloist Laura Benson, accompanied by her mother, Debbie, on the piano and her father, Allen, on the oboe.
Ushers were joined by 10-year-old J. R. Alster of Epworth UMC, who carried to the altar a laundry basket filled with “Socks and Bucks.” Hundreds donated socks stuffed with money to support two familiar agencies on Johns Island, Rural Mission and Our Lady of Mercy Outreach. The giving totaled $508.25 and 356 pairs of socks Both agencies have expanded their services to the needy in this challenging year and expressed sincere appreciation for the help from the seven United Methodist churches.
The Rev. Otis Scott Jr. of Wesley UMC, delivered the message from 2nd Samuel 9. He briefly mentioned David’s familiar encounters David’s but focused on the story of King David and Mephibosheth, the invalid son of David’s deceased friend Jonathan. It was important to David to keep his promise of caring for any remaining family of the house of Saul, Jonathan’s father. David heard that a young adult son of Jonathan, “crippled in both feet,” still existed in a desolate place called Lo-debar. David brought Mephibosheth from Lo-debar to honor him, to restore his lands and to have him eat at the king’s table for the rest of his life. Scott emphasized the growing need today for David-like loyalty to friends and family.
When Mephibosheth bowed down and referred to himself as a “dead dog,” the preacher reminded us with humor that was the lowest of all creatures in Bible times when “a dog was a dog,” not today’s pampered dog. Although Mephibosheth was in a worthless condition, David mercifully called him to come out of Lo-debar to be restored to the good life that God intended for him.
Scott extended an invitation of hope to everyone present. He repeated his message to come out of Lo-debar now; come out of despair, pain, addictions or whatever has “crippled” the lives of men and women and caused separation from God, to come and accept God’s forgiveness and love, as people came forward during the hymn.
Simmons extended gratitude for the various contributions of the day, including Wesley member Eartha Goodwin’s summer flowers. Simmons introduced James Robinson, New Webster‘s lay leader, a stand-out in his former football career who shared a special outlook on the combined service. Robinson said he visited this same church 10 years ago, and today expressed thanksgiving for the hearts that opened to produce a new day.
Bill Edmonds, St. John’s lay leader, also is a caterer who loves feeding large groups as he did this gathering under the tents and in the social hall. He had prepared countless pieces of chicken and eight fresh hams, and made all the other arrangements.
Amazing church cooks brought enough salads, corn, green beans, watermelon, pound cakes and banana pudding to feed over 200 and have leftovers! The day was a feast in every way.
Deal reflected on this meaningful happening at St. John. “Truly, Christ tears down walls and breaks down barriers that have separated his people. We serve a mighty God who transforms doubt into hope! The first “United Methodists Coming Together” worship service was an amazing, Spirit-powered celebration of faith: of prayer and praise, of music and preaching. The fellowship of breaking bread together followed a joyous expression of our deep connection to one another. For as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we are many members joined to each other, making up one body, the undivided Body of Christ: God’s vision for God’s people.”