St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church on George Lotson Lane on St. Simons Island will be sold to a developer and a replacement church built on a small island lot under a consent agreement approved by a Superior Court judge.
Judge Stephen D. Kelley signed an order approving a settlement between the three trustees of the church and, on the other side, the state AME church and the Palmetto Building Group.
Under the consent agreement, St. Luke trustees Ruthie Cobb, her daughter Ruby Jackson and son-in-law Jerome Jackson will drop their civil complaint against the state AME Church that had sought to sell property. The mother church had little if any investment in the church and grounds because the local congregation alone had bought the land tucked away at the end of George Lotson and raised all the funds to build the church there.
The fate of the church has been in dispute since shortly after Tropical Storm Hermine dropped a tree onto the roof of the sanctuary in late summer 2016. When the trustees of the small congregation told regional and state church officials they intended to repair the property, the mother church instead decided to sell the valuable property to a developer and merge the church with a mainland congregation.
As with some other denominations, AME bylaws say that local church real estate belong to the state church.
Cobb and the Jacksons filed suit to stop the sale and Kelley issued an order in May 2017 that preserved the church and halted any sale or demolition.
Under the consent agreement, not only will the island’s only AME congregation remain on St. Simons, the proceeds of the sale will be used to built a new church, pay their future dues to the state AME and to create a $75,000 debt service account.
Ruby Jackson said the small congregation is satisfied with the outcome.
“It’s been hell … We’re happy with the results, but we’re not happy with how we got here,’’ she said.
Indeed, it was a difficult court battle but so was the church’s early beginnings.
“We were allowed to lie in bed on a Saturday morning. We had to get up and go to work for the church,’’ she said.
They held a variety of fundraisers until they got the money to build their church on what had been a school for African-American children.
“I got tired of chicken dinners and fish dinners. We finally got our building and we were happy in it,’’ she said.
The congregation had dwindled to only the three active members as people died or moved away, but they still had the means to make repairs had the church hierarchy allowed it.
Attorney James Barger, who represented the Cobb and the Jacksons, said the church was basically self-insured and had money to replace the damaged roof and make other repairs, and, Jackson said, people pitched in the help.
After the church had the tree removed from the roof, the father of a former student patched up the roof and stopped the leak, and someone else volunteered to clean the carpet, she said.
It all harkened back to a time when St. Simons was a friendlier place, when everyone knew each other and gave help whenever it was needed, she said.
Barger said that it was a troubling sign that the church is coming down for development.
“St. Simons used to be a culturally rich place. When you see a church come down, that’s emblematic of a serious problem, when you see vacation homes replacing a church,’’ Barger said.
Barger said he was not the only one involved in trying to save the church.
“As a community, we came together and were willing to fight for this church,’’ he said.
Christ Church Episcopal opened its doors at St. Ignatius Church on Demere Road to give St. Luke’s a place to worship, and the owners of some very valuable land next door sacrificed a lot in selling the property to St. Luke’s.
St. Luke’s has grown some in recent months and has at least 10 in its Sunday services, Jackson said. The Barger family is often in the congregation, she said.
“My 8-year-old son [George] joined the church on his own volition,’’ Barger said.
Although it has been displaced from its first church building, St. Luke’s came away with some favorable terms in the settlement.
Under the compromise agreement, the Palmetto Building Group will pay the AME Church $617,500 for the current church property. From those proceeds, the AME Church will pay Coastal Office Properties LLC $120,000 – which the agreement calls a “charitable donation price’’ – for the quarter-acre lot at 2901 Demere Road next door to St. Ignatius Episcopal.
The AME Church has also agreed to secure a construction loan of $350,000 to build the new house of worship and to pay off the loan. The agreement also requires the state church to provide monthly and yearly reports on the status of the debt.
Should the state AME Church default on the loan, the debt service would be transferred to the trustees of St. Luke.
The AME Church has also agreed to pay Christ Church Frederica rent for St. Luke to use St. Ignatius for services until the new house of worship is completed. In exchange for a release from the legal claims in the suit, the AME Church has also agreed to forgive $300,000 in future dues or other fees due to the mother church.
Barger said dues of $850 every three months were unreasonably high for such a small congregation.
“Basically, three people were paying those dues,’’ he said.
Some lawyers in the case will get $100,000 in legal fees from proceeds of the sale. Barger will get none of that money because he represented St. Luke's pro bono. Should there be any unused funds, they will be used to benefit area AME churches.
Kelley’s order also lifts another compelling both sides to preserve the property until the dispute was resolved in court.
The church building cannot be demolished until the real estate closing, and the agreement gives St. Luke’s time to remove pews and other furnishings.