The pews where worshipers at St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church once sang hymns and listened to fiery sermons are safely in storage thanks to a businessman who will house them free until St. Lukes trustees build a new sanctuary.
David Lee, owner of Island Floors and Remodeling, and two of his workers, Aaron Mallard and William Carithers, loaded the pews, piano and other furnishings into a trailer and emptied the meeting hall of the church that has been sold to a developer along with its two acres of ground.
Ruby Jackson, a trustee of the church, watched gratefully but sadly, as Carithers and Mallard carried the 12-foot oak pews through the double front doors and stacked them in the trailer.
“I had to pray hard last night that I wouldn’t be out here crying,’’ Jackson said.
She spoke of memories at the church that she began attending at 7 when it was in a one-room school now long gone from the grounds. At 12, she joined St. Luke’s in its concrete block building.
“We used to run out here and play. We had a porch. You could sit on the porch. We had Easter egg hunts,’’ she said.
As the men worked, a small piece of equipment on rubber tracks chewed up the scenery, grinding the underbrush and small trees behind the church to mulch. Jackson said she figures the new owners, Palmetto Building Group, will have the church torn down by the end of the week. The wrecking crew will finish the job started three years ago by Tropical Storm Hermine, which blew a tree onto the church, knocking big holes in the roof. When Jackson, her husband, Jerome, and mother Ruthie Cobb sought help from the state AME church in making repairs, the mother church said it would instead sell the property and merge St. Luke’s congregation with one on the mainland.
Rather than go along with completely losing the property they had worked hard to acquire and build, St. Luke’s trustees filed suit in Glynn County Superior Court saying they also had a say in the sale. The matter was settled with AME officials in Atlanta agreeing to build a new church on a small lot the AME church would buy.
The vacant church has been repeatedly vandalized and, after a Brunswick News story last week on the damage and the small congregation’s lack of resources to move it property, several churches and individuals offered to help, including St. Simons Presbyterian, St. Simons Community Church and Christ Church Episcopal, said Jim Barger, a lawyer who filed the suit pro bono to stop or change the terms of the sale. Lee wasn’t the only private individual to step forward. Amanda Ford said she would rent a truck and organize volunteers to move the furnishings.
Barger said he was encouraged to see that St. Simons cared about the plight of the church. Barger said the church took Lee’s offer because he was in the best position to get things done quickly and had the equipment and staff to move the furnishings and a place for long term storage.
“It touched me,’’ Lee said of the church’s plight. “I couldn’t not find a way to help.”
Looking at the work of the vandals who tore down the church altar, ripped a painting of Jesus and defaced the communion table, Lee said it shows “a lack of morals we see every day.”
Although he’s in the development business, at least the remodeling side, Lee said he doesn’t like what is happening to St. Simons.
“It’s hard to see this part of the island go away,’’ he said.
St. Lukes also saw its congregation go away. As development boomed on the island, residents sold their property and moved, Jackson said. Some moved to the mainland and attended church there, she said.
St. Lukes is hemmed in by residential development on the northern dead end of George Lotson Avenue. The area was called South End and was one of three historically African American enclaves on the island.
The new St. Luke’s at St. Ignatius Episcopal will be close to the trustees’ homes and far easier to find than the current location.
Asked if that would help church growth, Jackson said it probably would not.
“You’re going from two acres to a lot,’’ she said. “There’s room to do a lot of stuff here.”
And they owned the building free and clear — or at least the AME church did — and had no intentions of selling it.
“We were happy here,’’ she said.
Also, the razing of the church is a deep disappointment to her mother who helped build the church.
“My mom dreamed of having her funeral here. My mom is 88 years old,’’ Jackson said.
The AME hierarchy didn’t come out well in the fallout over the selling of the church. In an unsigned April 17, 2017, letter labeled “statement regarding St. Luke AME Church,’’ the AME 6th district explained its position.
The letter explains that under church “doctrine and discipline … all real and personal property of all local churches is held in trust for the general church ...”
The 6th district was in possession of the deed for the property, and there was no reversionary clause under which the property would be handed back to the local congregation, the letter said.
The letter also pointed out that the church has only three members and has had services only one Sunday a month and that on other Sundays, its members visited other churches or didn’t go to church.
“My family vacationed on St. Simons in August and went to worship at St. Luke only to discover it only had church one Sunday a month,’’ the letter said.
The letter said that the money from the sale would be used not just to rebuild St. Luke’s but also to support ministry elsewhere in the district.
Jackson said St. Luke’s now has services on the second and fourth Sundays and that a minister comes from Jesup to preach.
Until its new church is built, the congregation will continue meeting next door to its building lot at St. Ignatius.