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St. John AME: Celebrating 150 years with worship and unveiling
By Nikki Best
Whether in worship, for a member’s accomplishments or for its own anniversary, celebration is what the congregation of St. John AME Church does best.
“My brothers and sisters, this has been going on for 150 years,” the Rev. Catherine Gibbs said. “And we are so grateful and thankful for how the Lord brought us to this point in life.”
St. John AME Church paid tribute to its roots over the weekend. A gathering of members and supporters of the church traveled from around the country to commemorate the anniversary and unveiled a state historical marker. Song, fellowship, praise and food found its way into the sesquicentennial.
“As I sat there and thought about where we are today, and where this church was birthed, and how it came into fruition, it makes your soul stop and quiver,” the Rev. Dr. Sandy L. Drayton, presiding elder of the Georgetown District AME, said.
The history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is one that may have caused lesser institutions to back down and close their doors, but the ancestors of AME persisted. It was created out of need. American Methodists in the late 18th century were far from welcoming to an African congregation. Many African Americans affiliated with the Protestant Episcopal Church, but a small group established the AME. Denominations were built across America during the 18th and 19th centuries and eventually stretched coast-to-coast.
The AME church existed, but was shuttered in South Carolina in the early 1800s, for offering a safe place for members to air grievances and take action against lynchings and discrimination. The church reopened in the state during reconstruction after the Civil War. St. John AME was one of those churches, establishing itself in 1867.
“Our foreparent, fresh out of the pot of slavery, had a mind to build a church and call it St. John’s,” Drayton said. “A church, where the people who are fresh from the chains, can come to worship God in spirit.”
The AME Church is one of survivors. From its beginnings to the more recent tragedy at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, their faith never wavers. It has withstood challenges of reconstruction and economic hardship, and embodies the spirit of strength, County Council Member Steve Goggans said.
“Our community is blessed with its presence,” Goggans said.
The placement of the historical marker was a feat in itself. The paperwork, permits and cost were the product of a collaboration between church and state, and a benefactor.
Virginia Skinner helped make the marker possible. She offered her expertise in the historical marker process and a donation to make sure it was placed in time for the anniversary. Skinner died March 27, but maybe she knew she’d need a proxy. She invited the pastor of her own church to attend the celebration with her.
“She asked me months ago if I would come and join her on this auspicious occasion,” the Rev. Ted Sherill, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Georgetown, said. “I wanted to be here for her and celebrate their rich history. Not every church can say they’ve been around 150 years.”
Arlene Poinsette Grate is the church’s historian and the church’s volunteer behind the marker. She began attending St. John more than 65 years ago. “I’d come to church with my sister. She didn’t want me to come, but my parents would say, ‘take her, take her,’” Grate said.
Her membership began with the second church, which was located just behind the current Duncan Avenue location. The third, and current, church was built in 1947. The educational building was added in 1977. The first St. John was in Litchfield, in a log cabin known as Campbell Chapel.
“While I was here in Sunday School, I would go outside and pump the water to clean the container we put the communion in,” she said.
Like its predecessors, the 1947 rendition of the church did not feature electricity or running water, those were added in the 1950s and 1960s. But it did, and does, feature a bell tower designed by Grate’s grandfather Abram Joseph Sr.
“They brought the bell on the barge from Charleston,” she said.
The bell hasn’t rung in years. With the passing of members and time, a lack of knowledge muted its song. It used to call the community to church and let them know when someone died.
Grate looks at the bell and tower as the next project though. After spending 10 years working on the 150th anniversary celebration and more than one year working on the historical marker, she needs a new project that celebrates her passion, St. John AME. The cost of the bell repair starts at $8,000.
“We’ll have to start a fundraiser for it,” she said. “I’d like to start it before I leave this side.”
St. John AME Church looks forward to its next 150 years. The 140 members welcome anyone and everyone to its congregation and services.
“Be happy,” Gibbs said. “Be spiritually blessed, but most of all be welcomed.”
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