Twenty-five years ago on September 21, 1989 Hurricane Hugo made landfall in the Charleston, SC area and brought significant destruction in almost two dozen counties. At that time I was working for Baptists in South Carolina and supervised the department that handled disaster response.
One of our responsibilities was to suggest places where mobile industrial kitchens–some contained within 18-wheeler, tractor-trailer rigs–should be set up. With that in mind I recommended that one of the feeding units be stationed on the parking lot of a particular church we will call Hope.
I was leading a strategic planning process with this congregation which decided to relocate seven miles away as it was no longer effective in reaching its community context and was continuing to decline. This all-white congregation had the reputation of not allowing a black person in their building except to make a delivery after which they were to leave immediately. Their community context was 99 percent black and the church’s reputation was well known.
A small piece of good news was that the all-white congregation realized their reputation, and was generally ashamed of it. We openly talked about the reality that they had lost the right to be the agents of the presence of Christ in this community. Perhaps God would give them another opportunity in a different place.
Their sanctuary held more than 500 people, but they seldom had more than 125 in attendance. Therefore, it was also not good stewardship for them to keep these facilities.
We all agreed the best buyer for their current facilities was a predominantly African-American congregation committed to ministry in this community context. They secured such a buyer, but it was not a congregation who previously had ministered in this community. This congregation—we will call Greater Hope–was relatively new and also averaged around 125 in attendance. They needed to find a way to connect with the community.
Before the sale was completed and Greater Hope moved into the facilities, Hurricane Hugo made an unwelcome appearance. Many houses in the community were damaged. Hope congregation’s building was also damaged. The community context was a very low income area. Food, water, and basic necessities were a challenge for some time.
With this full situation in mind I asked that a feeding unit be set up in the parking lot of this church. Everyone agreed. Over the next several weeks tens of thousands of meals were served to the residents of the community. Volunteers who came with the feeding unit led the effort, but members of both Hope and Great Hope worked alongside one another to feed this community.
What humankind could not do, God accomplished. But this was not all that would happen.
The Next Stage of Life for These Congregations
It took several months for the sale of the facilities to be completed as repairs were made to the building. The next spring when Greater Hope began to worship in their new home, from the first Sunday forward the sanctuary was full. Instead of 125 people they had over 500. The increase represented people from the neighborhood who wanted to be part of the congregation who had ministered to them in a time of great crisis.
Hope congregation did relocate seven miles away to the site of a congregation that died less than ten years after it was start. There was property and a building large enough for use by Hope congregation. Hope was able to use the proceeds from the sale of their former property to expand the facilities.
A couple of years later they asked me to preach for their anniversary celebration. It was the anniversary of their second year in their new location. The spirit in the church was grand. The attendance was over 300. Their involvement in their new community context was deep.
In many ways this was a win-win solution for both congregations. Again, God brought forth something that humankind could not do. At the same time, let’s be clear. The best solution would have been for Hope to have transitioned in their old location to become a multi-cultural congregation. What actually happened, while successful in the long-term, represented the circumstantial will of God rather than the ideal will of God.
Although this was 25 years ago, same or similar racial barriers still exist in way too many congregations who claim the name of Christ. May the story of Hope and Greater Hope increase. May the situations of little or no hope diminish.