Posts Tagged ‘ Presbyterian ’

Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Clover SC – Visited on 10/16/12

The Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church looks far older than the communities around it.  In the semirural South Carolina countryside west of Clover, SC, generally a land of farms, fields, and whitewashed houses on rolling hills, it stands with a sort of atavistic defiance to its setting.

The church rises tall upon a green lawn, framed at its back by forest, flanked on one hand by the elementary school across the road and on the other by its cemetery, rank upon rank of headstones marching to the roadside in every direction.  Its walls were of mortared red brick, darkened by age.  Tall, arched windows of stained glass march down the sides of its central hall.  A tower rises beside the front entrance, its crenelated top more reminiscent of an English parish church than anything typically found in South Carolina.

The floor of the church’s sanctuary sloped down from the front doors towards a raised stage.  Lurid red carpeting covered the floor and red cushions sheathed the three columns of pews that filled most of its space.  A strip of red separated the front row of pews from the stage.  The church altar stood at the stage’s foot, draped in red fabric and laid with a cross and candlesticks wrought from gleaming silver.  A broad wooden pulpit rose directly behind the altar, at the stage’s forward edge; behind it sat three high-backed wooden chairs for the church’s pastor and other prominent speakers, and behind them rose the church choir loft.  Two secondary wings opened onto the main sanctuary at either side of the stage, separated from the hall by panelled wooden doors that could slide up onto their ceilings on runners like suburban garage doors.

All the sanctuary’s walls, from rear to sides to choir loft, were painted in seamless white.   Those stained glass windows seen from outside punctuated the walls, framed by age-darkened wood and set with tiny plaques naming worshippers whose donations helped restore them over the years.  An identical window stood behind the choir loft’s seats, but it was sealed and its glass removed long ago when the church expanded beyond its old sanctuary.  Outside, the church’s walls lighten noticeably where its original brickwork gives way to later additions.

The sanctuary’s ceiling was easily its most striking feature.  Two ventral beams of heavy, dark wood stretched the length of the chamber, crossed at regular intervals by seven matching lateral beams.  Taken together, they arched the ceiling along its middle and resembled nothing so much as the segmented plates of a turtle shell, as seen from inside the putative beast.  Within each segment was a grid of molded, white-washed squares, torn here and there where age took its toll on the paint and plaster-work.  Electric lamps hung from the ceiling on long chains, adding their light to that already pouring in through the many windows.

A formidable congregation gathered beneath that turtle shell ceiling come the start of the day’s worship service.  From a quiet seat in the rear of the sanctuary Churchspotting was able to count over fifty individuals in the sanctuary, not including those seated in the secondary wings and those on stage among the choir.  All told the full number on that Sunday was well over sixty persons, though probably less than a hundred.

The day’s ceremonies began with a reading of announcements, followed by prayer, followed in turn by a hymn sung by the full congregation.  Public prayer was conducted at the Bethany ARP in the following manner.  First the presiding speaker, whether the church’s pastor or an elder, afforded the community a period of silent prayer; worshippers sat with heads bowed, eyes closed, in silence.  In time the speaker began to pray aloud while the congregation remained seated, sometimes at considerable length, until the prayer was closed a last thanks to the deity.  Music at Bethany ARP was highly traditional, composed wholly of the human voice and a simple piano accompaniment.

The congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together immediately after the day’s first hymn.  Then the church’s pastor, Alan Arthur Morrow, holder of that post since 1992, called the congregation’s children to the front pews for a children’s sermon.  Morrow, a tall, bald, older man, began by asking the children to make a list of bad things they did in their daily lives.  Once they’d compiled a list, which he committed to a whiteboard brought down before the stage, Morrow explained to them that these bad acts were ultimately sins: violations of God’s law.

Morrow taught the children that all people were sinners, including themselves, but that if they asked God’s forgiveness for their transgressions he would “put [their] sins out of sight,” a point he illustrated by wiping the white board clean of text.  Because of this, he said, “let us love Him and worship Him and serve Him all the days of our lives.”

After the children’s sermon deacons walked the aisles bearing trays for the congregation’s donations, backed by accompaniment from the piano.  Once the day’s tithe was gathered the congregation recited from catechism statements printed in that day’s church bulletin.  Among other things they affirmed that they believed there to be one god in the universe, a godhead composed of three personalities (Father, Son and Spirit) which were nonetheless one being.  Morrow read each catechism question from the pulpit; the congregation read out the appropriate response in unison, save for those who knew their catechism well enough to recite it from memory.

A second hymn followed this group recitation, then another period of prayer.  The remainder of the service, about half its overall length, was the pastor’s sermon.  First Morrow read from the Bible, specifically Luke 7:36-50.  His selection told the story of an evening Jesus spent in the house of Simon, a priest of the mainstream Jewish establishment in his day, at which a woman of ill repute in her neighborhood washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed his feet with expensive oil.  To better set the scene for his congregation Morrow described contemporary styles of eating and architecture: specifically, the Roman fashion of eating from low tables while reclining upon couches, and the layout of a Roman-style urban villa with its atrium opening onto the street.

Morrow focused on the contrition and passion of the woman in her tending to Jesus, and the self-righteousness of Simon when he rebuked Jesus for associating with a woman of such poor reputation.  He asked his congregation how they would treat a drunk, a prostitute or an open homosexual who entered their church and called them to be “a friend to sinners,” as he repeatedly described Jesus.

A final hymn followed the sermon’s close, after which the congregation of Bethany ARP made for the sanctuary’s front doors.  The land outside was cool under a gray sky, and leafy boughs stretched over the church’s cemetery hung yellowed and inflamed by the changing seasons.

First Presbyterian Church, Rock Hill, SC – Visited on 4/1/12

The architecture of York County tends towards the unimpressive.  Clover, South Carolina, for instance, has no readily visible buildings taller than two stories.  Those with a second story are usually the brick blockhouses of main street, brightened here and there by a festive awning or hanging sign.

The area’s younger churches are usually rented spaces, former shops or warehouses or manufactories converted by their new congregations into places of worship.  These buildings’ serve their groups spiritual needs, but they do little to hearken back to older traditions of religious structures that whose architecture, especially their use of light and space, accompanied and magnified the spiritual pursuits engaged within their walls.

Today, Churchspotting visits a place of worship in the old style.  The First Presbyterian Church of Rock Hill, SC is a massive structure by local standards.  Faced in red brick, its tower looms above the two- and three-story bank buildings and art galleries of downtown Rock Hill.  Its sanctuary is a hemisphere of whitewashed, paneled wood, its arches vaulting skyward, its dome pierced by circular stained glass windows that allow morning sunlight too pour down into the chamber.

One side of the sanctuary is lined by the massive form of the church’s classical pipe organ, framed by seating for the church choir and the pastor’s podium.  Pews spread in long rows before the altar, hard wooden backs set with plush red cushions.

First Presbyterian presents a highly traditional service by York County standards.  The congregation, primarily a gray-haired gathering, with a sprinkling of younger parents and their children, arrives in its Sunday best.  Younger men of the congregation take positions by the door, greeting visitors and handing out the day’s church bulletin.  The choir sits in rows before the organ in full robes.

April 1 was a special occasion on the Christian calendar this year.  It marked Palm Sunday, an event from the New Testament where the Christian messiah, Jesus, entered into the ancient, holy city of Jerusalem mounted on a colt, as followers and well-wishers laid palm fronds before and behind his mount.  In memory of that event, the church’s choir entered carrying palm fronds, while the congregation pinned to their clothing blades from like fronds entwined into the shape of a cross.

The service began at 11 am, and ended by noon.  The days devotional regimen was heavy with music from the choir and organ, sometimes accompanied by the congregation on their hymnals.  The church’s choir proved both well-trained and passionate in their music, but their voices easily eclipsed the more muted tones of the congregation itself.  After song, prayer and a moment with the congregation’s children, the church’s pastor took the podium and began his sermon, entitled “The Mind of Christ.”

Titled the church’s ‘interim’ senior pastor, Rev. John Todd is a lean, older man whose hair went white with the years.  His premise for the morning was that the congregation should emulate Christ with their minds as well as their deeds.  Through parables he said that American culture’s focus on worldly success does not necessarily lead to happiness, and that Jesus, whose arrival at Jerusalem the church celebrated that day, spent his life giving rather than struggling to possess more.

In our next article Churchspotting sits down with Rev. Todd to discuss the First Presbyterian Church, its history, and its message, in greater depth.

Living Waters Presbyterian Church – Visited on 9/25/11

Beyond the main thoroughfares of business and travel the Carolina Piedmont’s roads are winding, lonesome things.  The ever-present forest shadows any traveler to either hand, save where the trees are hacked back to make room for human spaces and open sky.  Away from the towns these spaces are usually farmers’ fields or household lawns, whether they be old hardwood ranch homes or double-wide trailers.  The road slides round the summits of hills and hops over stream beds, an asphalt spiderweb cut into the green and brown that surrounds every little cluster of urban life in this state.

Living Waters Presbyterian Church sits on just such a plot carved from the forests, its entrance fortified by a simple cattle gate the likes of which can be found on any of the region’s farms.  A small parking lot surrounds the church itself, along with a field and a modest, scarecrow-watched garden.  The church itself is a plain aluminum-bulwarked rectangle, of the sort used by small manufacturing businesses across upstate South Carolina–before it was bought by the church, the property was used for warehousing.

When I arrived the congregation was still trickling in, availing itself of the coffee and breakfast food laid at one end of the sanctuary.  The interior of the church is plain and unadorned, lit with banks of institutional halogen lights and seated with rows of removable chairs.  Two linked flat screen televisions hang facing the congregation, to display scripture readings or song lyrics throughout the service, or to simply provide a splash of color with their screen savers in the otherwise austere space.

The people of Living Waters Presbyterian are an older set, many of them married couples without children in attendance.  Dress in the sanctuary was casual, and the atmosphere convivial–the members of Living Waters seem to have known each other for some time.  The morning I visited there were approximately 20 worshippers in attendance, but when all the church’s members gather they number around forty-five.

The pastor of Living Waters is Marty Taylor, a former businessman who, by his own description, made religion a part of his life after faith helped him overcome alcoholism in the 1990s.  He has worked as a pastor since 2000, and began ministering to the congregation that now worships at Living Waters in 2010.  He is a congenial, bespectacled middle-aged man, welcoming to strangers, who began the tradition at his church of worshippers voicing their prayers aloud, in turns, so that their fellows can join with them.  On the matter of Church and State, Taylor said that “God has instituted governments for the people, all governments are answerable to god.”  He believes that there is a certain amount of overlap between Church and State simply because there are religious people in government, and their beliefs inform the policies they enact: “Faith naturally expresses itself.”

The morning I visited, Rev. Taylor was dressed just as casually as his flock–moreso, as he wore a Brett Favre football jersey throughout the service in anticipation of the church’s “Football Kick-Off lunch” held after worship that day.  Yet his sermon that day, entitled “…Really?”, was stern.  He claimed the congregation was not personally committed to its church–Living Waters needed more volunteers to maintain the grounds, more donations to pay for its property’s upkeep, more activity from the congregation in general.  The church’s bulletin showed that Living Waters was over $500 behind on its weekly financial needs the week before, and over half the congregation was absent from church the day I visited, not because they could not come but because they did not attend every week.

Before Rev. Taylor arrived the congregation of Living Waters worshipped in a rented space at Bethel Elementary, not unlike other groups visited by Churchspotting.  The church bought its current space in 2010 and moved into the warehouse plot in February of 2011.  The church’s expenses grew considerably with its new property, but the congregation itself has not, and now financial troubles lurk in the background of its services.  Yet it’s been less than a year since Living Waters moved to its new location, and Churchspotting has certainly visited smaller churches that maintain equal facilities.  Living Waters remains a troubled church, but its future remains undecided.

Passage of the Day for 10/1 and Tomorrow’s Update

Today’s reading comes from the Qur’an, Surat an-Naml (The Ant), 27:52.

Tomorrow’s update is Living Waters Presbyterian Church.

Allison Creek Presbyterian Church – Visited on 8/28/11

An old white-washed church sits upon a hill overlooking the broad margins of the new highway between Lake Wylie and Rock Hill, SC.  As one approaches from the road, to the left hand sit the timeworn stones of its traditional cemetery, fringed with outbuildings and halls.  Those constructions are the products of a long, slow, continual expansion of the church’s facilities: founded in 1854, Allison Creek Presbyterian Church expanded organically with the decades and adds new wings as time and funds permit.  Its original wooden sanctuary is now but one of many structures that comprise the church.

Allison Creek retains the trappings of its antebellum heritage.  A balcony still hangs above its small sanctuary where slaves once worshipped above and behind their masters.  Up there the original pews remain, carved by slave labor a century and a half ago and built at a slant to ensure that anyone falling asleep during the service would be unceremoniously dumped from their seat.

Come the last few minutes before 10 o’clock the congregation files into the old sanctuary, greeted by its Spartan white walls and the chatter of their fellow worshippers.  There is a convivial atmosphere in an Allison Creek service born of long familiarity, yet even strangers can expect a warm welcome.  Included in the service is a practice called “the passing of the peace,” during which the congregation takes time to welcome visitors and express their appreciation for their shared devotion.

Beyond twin rows of pews the floor rises to lift the church’s altar above the congregation, yet even it is plain: an unadorned cross of precious metal, with the ceremonial plate and goblet set before it.  Behind the altar a few simple glass windows gleam from an alcove, while to either side rest the chairs of the church choir, a half-dozen strong, the organ, and an assembly of other instruments from bass guitars to bongos that were left untouched during my visit.

The congregation that morning was a relatively mixed crowd dominated by families of the working middle class, all dressed in their Sunday best.  There are many couples with children at Allison Creek, and they join their parents in the opening hymns of the service before departing for Sunday school or the nursery.

That morning was a special one for Allison Creek Presbyterian.  Each prayer was recited by a member of the church youth group; what is more, each prayer was an original work, composed by the teenagers in question and their families.  There is a strong current of communal involvement at Allison Creek, where each service is complemented by post-worship Bible study for both adults and children, and though the congregation is not large it boasts a sizable cohort of deacons to greet congregants at the door and see to its temporal needs.

It is only after the congregation has spent some time at song and prayer that the pastor of Allison Creek Presbyterian, Sam McGregor Jr., makes his presence felt.  Rev. McGregor is a tall, thin, middle-aged man.  By looks he seems a fusion of Mr. Rogers and Dana Carvey, of Wayne’s World and Saturday Night Live.  He has a high pitched, soft voice, and though he puts on his pastor’s robes for formal occasions for most services he wears only a collared shirt and slacks, with a stole draped across his neck emblazoned with the symbols of his office and religion.  When not speaking or taking some active role in the service Rev. McGregor takes a seat with the congregation in the foremost pew.

That morning Rev. McGregor’s sermon centered on a piece of scripture that, by his own admission, is often simply passed over by readers of the Old Testament.  It told of how, upon seeing a Hebrew laborer being beaten by an Egyptian, the prophet Moses killed the Egyptian and hid the body.  When he heard his crime whispered of by other Hebrews nonetheless, he skipped town and went into hiding.

While in hiding he chanced upon a well, where he saw a group of women attempt to draw water for their flock of goats.  When a group of male shepherds drove the women away to use the well themselves, Moses took it upon himself to draw the water and provide it to the women and their flocks.  McGregor used this passage to illustrate how Moses acted whenever he saw injustice done, impressed upon his congregation that like him they should never tolerate injustice where they encounter it.

After the service, and some time spent sitting in on one of the church’s bible study groups, I conducted a brief interview with Rev. McGregor.  He is a native of Columbia, South Carolina, a little over an hour’s drive from his current church, who abandoned an early interest in dairy farming to study divinity and earn his credentials as a Presbyterian minister.

From him I learned that beyond its robust internal community Allison Creek operates several charitable works in the community: an annual donation of supplies to local schools; a free music fest; the church parking lot is set up as a campground with electricity and water for Habitat for Humanity caravans; and, recently, a project that deserves special recognition.

Not long ago members of Allison Creek Presbyterian rediscovered a forgotten cemetery in the woods behind the church.  This was identified as a slave cemetery, a counterpart to the plot where their owners were interred beside the church.  Volunteers from Allison Creek refurbished the slave cemetery, to the point that it is now a state historical site.  Just before my visit Allison Creek conducted a joint worship service in the cemetery with two other local churches descended from the men and women buried within.

Finally, I asked Rev. McGregor about the proper relationship between Church & State.  His response was that the government should protect all citizens’ right to gather and worship.

Clover Evangelical Presbyterian Church – Visited on 7/17/2011

Yet another warm, muggy, overcast morning.  The clouds laid spread from horizon to horizon as a tattered, grey-white bed sheet throughout the weekend of the 17th.  Beneath such dull skies the whitewashed wooden siding of Clover Evangelical gains a matte dullness, but its windows remain as bright and welcoming as ever.  Those windows, which from a distance appear to be the stained glass of other churches in the area, are in fact wooden boards painted in a bright, eye-catching likeness of the traditional glass.

Where the Clover ARP covered last week was a centennial institution, Clover Evangelical has only just celebrated its twentieth anniversary at its current location.  The church is a single story longhouse of wood sidings and brick foundation, with a small steeple rising above the entrance crowned with a white wooden cross.  Along its left wall is a tiny tended garden, with benches and brick paving set before a free-standing wooden cross, behind which looms a carven likeness of the Ten Commandments set into a red brick frame.

Inside one finds sturdy wooden pews beneath the fluorescent lights and drop-ceilings of an office building or public school, with a stage to the rear from which the pastor preaches and the congregation’s youth choir sings.  A thin wall divides the longhouse behind that stage, veiling a meeting room prepared for community meals and gatherings.  Despite their modest funds the church staff has clearly gone to great pains to prepare its sound system.  A modern stereo apparatus lurks in the back left corner, behind the several pews, while microphones for the choir bristle behind the pastor’s lectern.

Clover Evangelical is, according to its own pastor Rev. Chuck Maynard, very much a blue collar affair.  In his own words, Rev. Maynard preaches to exactly one doctor and no lawyers.  It is a small, informal gathering, reputed by its own members to average at twenty members, where thirty adults at a single worship service is a full house.

They arrive in sandals and t-shirts, tucked in collared shirts among the elder men, dresses for the elder women, each attired as though for a day of work or school.  There is an informality, a closeness to the service—there is a sense of family and community in the longhouse, where everyone knows everyone and has done for years hence.  That day only a combined thirteen adults and teenagers were in attendance, with others unable to visit due to injury or illness.

Music dominates the first half of the Clover Evangelical experience by music.  The congregation sings hymns alongside contemporary studio reproductions played through the sound system while an overhead projector displays the lyrics upon the far wall, a kind of sacred karaoke.  The machine’s music enfolds and largely overpowers the voices of the small congregation, most of whom seem too shy to sing out.

A sermon from the presiding reverend fills the second have of the worship service; that morning  Rev. Maynard, a self-described veteran of two years in the Vietnam War,  began with a reading from the Book of Isaiah and criticism of the American legal system, which is “flat screwed up” in his words.  The reverend’s condemnation extended to the American government, of which he remarked “How many of us expect a politician to tell us the truth?”

The pastor emphasized the role of the family in the church, its importance in reinforcing its own teachings and preventing its members from straying from their oaths and covenants in the faith.  In that vein Rev. Maynard held nothing back when he condemned homosexuality, saying “It is an abomination to God and it is not okay.”  He bitterly criticized 129 Presbyterian pastors, whom he said recently signed a document affirming their decision to accept homosexuality in their churches.  Of them he said, “They are not pastors, they are not Christians, and they are going to Hell.”

On the role of Christianity in government and the power of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Rev. Maynard said he believed that the clause exists only to prevent the establishment of a national church of the United States, such as the country’s founding fathers saw and experienced in other contemporary nations.  He rejected what he called a “separation of God and government,” and would prefer that the US government operated on a strict constitutional basis.

Clover Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church – Visited on 7/10/2011

A warm, muggy, overcast morning.  The Clover ARP is a slender creature of red brick, its black iron fences enclosing a modest wood and plastic playground for the congregation’s children, its spires soaring above the low two-story buildings of downtown Clover, its doors spread open beneath the shade of spreading trees.

Inside, one enters a sanctum suffused by the golden-mellow glow of morning sunlight streaming in through stained glass.  The walls are smoothed by slick white plaster, its ceiling’s curves picked out by great, time-stained beams of centennial wood that hint at the church’s lengthy history.

This was an irregular service for the Clover ARP: its pastor and much of its congregation were away at an annual church camping trip, leaving the sanctum half-full, its pews wide and naked.  Without its regular staff to prime the church’s organ and audio devices, the service’s several hymns proceeded in mumbled, half-heard quiet.

So many absences lent the proceedings in the Clover ARP this morning a tired, slightly mournful air.  Much of the church’s resources are dedicated towards its youngest members: testified by the aforementioned playground, as well a whole complex of rooms behind the sanctuary designated as Sunday schools and day cares.  An entire alternative service is normally held simultaneously with the main worship on Sundays specifically for the children, but with so many absent such activities were cancelled.  Young couples and their children make up a considerable proportion of the Clover ARP’s membership, and without them its services have only a scattering of elderly couples and childless adults to crouch sparsely on its benches.

In lieu of the usual pastor, this morning’s sermon was led by Mark Witte, a seminary graduate currently living in Columbia, South Carolina.  He is a strikingly tall man, lank and lean, well educated but still young and fresh from his own instruction.

The morning’s sermon was his own creation, built on a reading from Ephesians 5:15-20. He enjoined the congregation to act as exemplars of their religion, likening their status as role models to how his own great stature as a child made him the object of his teachers’ and guardians’ reproach when he and his childhood friends made mischief.  He taught that the congregants must adopt this role quickly, for each moment spent at the business of the world was one not spent in the service of their faith and god.

Mr. Witte took the time to sit a brief interview with me after the service.  He and his young family are bound for Tampico, Mexico in the near future, where he will teach at a seminary school for the American ARP’s Mexican sister-church.  On the interface of Church and State, he held that the American constitution’s enumerated inalienable rights are, though influenced by Christianity, derived from rights permitted to all people, regardless of their particular creed.  The freedoms granted by “our unity in Christ,” mentioned repeatedly during the morning’s sermon, were by contrast the sole province of the faithful, and refer more to the next life rather than matters temporal.

Further, he explained that the Establishment Clause from the First Amendment of the US Constitution provides freedom of religion, not freedom from religion; specifically, that there should be no coercion towards any one faith, but that the machinery of the state should be operated in accordance with, to use his term, “Judeo-Christian principles.”  Those who push to divide Church and State completely, he said, are in effect promoting their own religion: they are “angry against god,” and so promote their own beliefs against the Church out of that anger.

On his spiritual peers in Mexico, the representatives of the Catholic Church, whom he must certainly encounter during his time in that country, he would say only that many in Mexico have not truly heard the Good News.  There was a difference, he said, between those who attend worship services because they are “cultural Christians,” and those who go to worship the living god in their hearts.  Many in Mexico, he said, were cultural rather than spiritual Christians, whose practices he was set to rectify.

Mr. Witte remarked that the true issue in Mexico was corruption, specifically the worship of money over concern for spiritual and moral matters.  On the wealth and income inequalities within the United States, he said that “to those whom much is given, much is expected,” and remained confident that those who misuse the great wealth God has given them will receive their due justice one day.