Altama Presbyterian Church has long stood as a landmark along its namesake street in Brunswick. The brown complex constructed in the 1970s is a familiar fixture at the intersection of Community Road, Cypress Mill and Altama Avenue.
While the facade looks the same as it has for decades, there has been great change taking place inside.
Not only has the parish gained a new pastor, the Rev. Jamil el-Shair, it is also planning to move from its location, turning the property over to Hand in Hand of Glynn Inc., a nonprofit to house the homeless. In February, the announcement was made that an anonymous $300,000 donation, in addition to other sizable gifts, allowed the organization to purchase the property. Plans call for the building of 60 one-bedroom efficiencies or “tiny homes” at the location. The group expects to complete 16 of the units by the end of the year.
As for the congregation and its leadership, the project is right in-line with its mission of helping the less fortunate. And, el-Shair, who arrived in the fall of last year, has been inspired by the church’s willingness to assist.
“It is such a blessing,” he said. “We are a small congregation, and we realized that it didn’t really make sense for us to be in such a large space. It all really worked out for the best.”
Since the announcement of the sale, el-Shair has been moved by the way the congregation has embodied the spirit of Christ.
“They have always really embraced the idea of helping others, especially the less fortunate. Everywhere is part of the church for them … the whole city of Brunswick. It’s a beautiful thing to see,” el Shair said.
He became part of that community after serving as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Midway. He connected with the congregation while he was filling in for Altama Presbyterian’s previous pastor.
“I was actually still at Midway at the time. It was also a small congregation, and I have a passion for small congregations. I was filling in for the pastor here. Then, he got the call to go to another congregation,” he said with a laugh. “So they asked me to stay. I’m so grateful. Brunswick is such an interesting place.”
Since arriving, he has connected with his fellow Presbyterian ministers in the city, vowing to work together to advance their collective vision.
“There are three Presbyterian churches in the city, and we are all relatively small congregations. But they all have such a heart for service. So we are going to work with our sister churches on projects to make a major difference in the community,” he said.
Currently, Altama Presbyterian has moved to a temporary location at 777 Gloucester Street. Initially, el-Shair expected to see a downturn in attendance following the move — but that didn’t happen.
“I was really pleasantly surprised … with a move you expect to lose some people but we didn’t lose a single member,” he said.
And even with the coronavirus pandemic, el-Shair has seen an increase in devotion among the church’s membership. “We have actually seen people come back to the church in the shadow of the coronavirus,” he said. “We’ve continued to hold services electronically and they’re participating.”
The church even offered a remote communion service, akin to the one it usually does on the first Sunday of the month. Instead of holding it in person, however, the church offered the materials for parishioners to use at home.
“We blessed the materials, and they could pick it up or have it mailed it. Then, we led them through the service so they could participate at home,” el-Shair said. “We also did a virtual Easter sunrise service where we went outside and videoed it.”
Prior to the pandemic, he was skeptical about the sincerity an online community could create. But since the start of virtual services, that has changed.
“I always kind of thought social media created a false sense of community. But that’s not the case, we have discovered that there really is a community there and it’s strong,” he said.
That power of connection and love for one’s fellow man has become one of the bright spots amid a lot of darkness.
“We have to recognize where the blessings are … and if there’s anything positive about this virus, it’s that people are discovering ways to keep the connection and take care of one another.”