It’ll take more than a fire to crush the indomitable spirit of St. Andrew’s Church in Mount Pleasant. In fact, the tragedy seems to have done just the opposite.
The Rev. Steve Wood, bishop of the Diocese of the Carolinas, has been the rector of St. Andrew’s in the Old Village for 18 years. He takes the paraphrased words of the prophet Isaiah 61:3 to heart: God brings beauty from ashes. But Wood isn’t just referring to the grand new building that is being constructed on the footprint of the demolished ministry center. He’s talking about the beauty that’s come in the form of community support he and his congregation have experienced since the conflagration six months ago.
“We have received some most extraordinary donations from people we don’t even know – individuals, businesses, schools, other churches,” he said. “One local church even tithed from their Sunday collection to help out.”
Wood explained that the support has come in many other ways besides the obvious monetary donations: “Some of our staff offices are temporarily located at other churches, and our day school is currently at Sullivan’s Island Baptist Church. We are somewhat nomadic right now.”
Wood believes the outpouring of support for St. Andrew’s is reflective of how much the community has long-appreciated his congregation’s own tradition of serving others. For many years, the church has been deeply involved in outreach, providing a free health-care clinic, tutoring, a food pantry, assistance to water missions and support for a family in the Congo, among numerous other aid projects.
So when it came time for others to extend a helping hand to St. Andrew’s, Eddie Schroeder of East Cooper Baptist Church said, “We just wanted to treat them the same as we’d like to be treated.” Schroeder added that his church has partnered with St. Andrew’s for different community events in the past and that the congregation “…has always been near and dear to us. So we did everything we could to move around our own office space to make the staff from St. Andrew’s feel at home.”
In fact, he said, the visitors “became like family, and it was bittersweet to see them leave.”
The Rev. Iris Brown, pastor of Ebenezer Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church, explained, “I reached out to St. Andrew’s because I believe this is something God wants us to do – to connect with each other. And I wanted my own church members to know that we have to demonstrate unconditional love to those in distress.”
Ebenezer’s congregation was happy to open its doors to St. Andrew’s for staff meetings, but Brown believed the gesture also established a bridge across cultural and socioeconomic differences.
“As a pastor, I wanted to demonstrate that we must lead by serving,” she said.
Steve Day, executive director of Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, believes the action of one faith group helping another exemplifies the true sense of community that is felt across religious boundaries. Nancy Sapakoff, administrative assistant to Wood, agreed, adding that there were so many offers of help from other faith communities that it wasn’t necessary to take everyone up on their offers. She and Wood both emphasized that there are simply too many benefactors to list them all.
Community support has come from individuals and businesses as well. Marty Cribb of Whole Foods explained that, shortly after the fire, when the leadership staff at St. Andrew’s needed a meeting place to initially gather their thoughts, his store was able to accommodate them with a conference room, complete with coffee and pastries. Charleston Artist Collective, a neighbor of St. Andrew’s in the Old Village, donated its proceeds from one weekend’s sales to the church. And the list goes on and on.
Many Mount Pleasant residents look forward to the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s annual performance of “Handel’s Messiah” as a St. Andrew’s Christmastide tradition. They can rest assured that the event will take place, hosted this year at East Cooper Baptist.
And for the 4,000 church members who worship on Sundays with St. Andrew’s, two weekly services are currently held at Mount Pleasant Academy in addition to the four services at the small “historic church” of St. Andrew’s, which miraculously escaped the fire on the property. Kim Jackson, the school’s principal, said the congregation is able to continue its Sunday morning children’s ministry, too, by using her school’s library, music room and playground: “They can do everything they need to do on Sunday mornings.”
She hopes the relationship between the church and school will continue even after the parishioners are able to return to their own sanctuary space once the ministry center is rebuilt.
“We are talking about mentoring and tutoring programs and have some other things in the works. At least once a week, someone from our community thanks me for what we have done as a school to help out. But we just did what we thought was right and what we thought anyone would do,” Jackson continued.
So for the next two years, until construction of the new ministry center is complete, Wood and his flock will rely on the kindness of strangers and the benevolence of the community to continue their centuries-old traditions and mission of service.
And the community seems eager to oblige.
By Mary Coy