DJ-turned-rector shepherds growing flock

Picture the priest with headphones.

Remove the robe, the collar and hand him a T-shirt. Take his short hair and make it long and shaggy. Now, lift him from the pulpit and put him on the airwaves.

The tune is transition, and it requires a feat of divine imagination.

Not long ago, relatively speaking, the Rev. John Burwell fashioned a career in the radio booth as a disc jockey. He supplied the hits, a purveyor of pop music and pop culture, and found his favorites in The Beatles and Motown.

He loved his work — never considered another career — until the gospel called, and he surrendered.

"God had claimed me," Burwell says. "He wasn't going to let go of me, and he didn't."

The radioman turned into a rector, and in 1987, he discovered his vessel, the Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan's Island. Since then, he has shepherded its growth as the church has expanded from 75 members to 1,800, and added two branches.

Twenty years go by quickly, he knows. And he admits he harbored doubts, especially at the outset.

"I got down on my knees in my office," recalls Burwell, 56. "I said, 'God, I can't do this. I'm over my head.'

"I heard God. And he said, 'You can't do it, but I can. And I will.' "

Drawn to radio

Burwell's voice — polished by radio — is smooth and gentle, ringing from the altar on a Sunday morning.

The Episcopalian gown and rite both fit comfortably, the markers of an adulthood unforeseen in his youth. Burwell's father owned one of the two AM radio stations in Rock Hill. He persuaded his dad to give him a few shifts, and on the weekends he hosted a beach music show.

"Back then, the job of a DJ was to entertain, not just to play music," Burwell says. "Everybody was an entertainer in those days. It was a fun time."

His dad sent him to the University of South Carolina with a caveat, that Burwell not become a disc jockey. He hoped his son might have other designs, and Burwell complied, majoring in law.

Only by his junior year, he found himself drawn back to radio. Burwell had gotten a part-time job at a Columbia station and, with his father's blessing, he switched his major to broadcast journalism.

"I ate and slept it," he says.

It wasn't as if he were unaware of religion. He knew Christ. Burwell's mother died from leukemia the day after his eighth birthday, and his stepmother helped foster his Episcopalian faith.

Young Burwell had asked her a question: "What happens to you when you die?"

"Would you like to know that you can live forever?" she replied. At age 9, Burwell confessed Jesus as his savior.

In high school, he participated in church and youth groups. By college, he had lost his faith.

He studied philosophy and read Friedrich Nietzsche, learning of Superman, the Uberman, how God was dead, and how religion — bah — was only a crutch.

"Of course," he says, "I'm 19 years old and I'm the smartest man who has ever lived. If there's no God, there's no guilt. And these are the hippie days, remember, so I got all into it."

Months after graduation, a personal crisis gave him pause. The girl he adored, whom he thought he'd marry, plainly dumped him. He felt abandoned, because as he explains, he had made her his God.

"All of a sudden, I had nothing," Burwell says. "I said, 'God, I don't even know if you exist, but if you do, I'm at the end of my rope.'

"To use a phrase John Wesley used, I felt my heart strangely warmed."

Heeding his call

By then in 1974, he had moved to Charleston, landing his dream job at the popular WTMA, which at the time, Burwell says, had more listeners per capita than any other station in the Southeast.

He felt closer to God, closer than he had in years, but still found little value in organized religion.

"I thought you could worship God just as well out on the harbor in a boat or on the golf course," Burwell says.

His breakup had soured him on dating, too. He didn't see anyone for 18 months until a co-worker, another DJ, suggested someone.

Wait, I don't do blind dates, Burwell told him. Then, he showed him a picture. Burwell reconsidered, falling in love with Sylvia Fender, a schoolteacher from Moncks Corner.

The two were married in 1976 as Burwell's new bride coaxed him into the unimaginable. After their honeymoon, the couple began attending church.

They went to St. Peter's, now the Church of the Good Shepherd, an Episcopal church near their home in West Ashley.

Burwell was surprised. He had missed it: the relationships, church, God.

He began teaching Sunday school and directing the teenage youth group.

He was being tugged.

"After three or four years, I heard the call," Burwell says. "I'm thinking, 'What is this? I'm a disc jockey at the No. 1 station.'

"It was an inner voice. This is what the Lord wants me to do: To be ordained and be in seminary."

A thriving church

Burwell eventually attended seminary in Pittsburgh, served a church in Orangeburg for three years, then returned to Charleston and the Church of the Holy Cross.

"There was a struggling little place with very little future," he says.

Burwell encountered a vestry averse to change. The church, itself, had been the same size for about 30 years.

Burwell wanted Holy Cross to grow, to seek out new members and create new services, and maintain tradition. The vestry saw matters differently.

One member told him, "Burwell, the only reason I'm on this vestry is to make sure you don't get what you want."

Burwell shakes his head. "Those were strange days."

So he prayed, and eventually won over the church. Membership doubled in three years' time. Old attitudes, hearts changed.

Holy Cross built a new parish hall, and the church added worship services and opened a branch on Daniel Island. Tent services are held in I'On in Mount Pleasant. Construction on a facility there is slated to begin before 2008.

In short, the church is thriving.

Now married for 31 years and the father of two daughters, Burwell still pulls from the old days. He dips into pop culture during his sermons, connecting with his parishioners just as he did with his listeners. Sometimes, he even finds time to pop into his home studio to record a few snippets.

"It's been an amazing 20 years," he says, "and I have a feeling we're just getting started."