There was a day when drugs and crime lived as blatant members of the Liberty Hill community. Even today, stretches remain where poverty weathers people's homes and dulls their dreams.
Now two growing churches that sit almost kitty-corner to each other are bringing the area hope of reviving - and revival - through the clamor of new construction along a major road through the North Charleston neighborhood.
"In the community we're living in, there's not a lot of new anything being built and renovated. That causes low self-esteem," says the Rev. Isaac Holt, pastor of Royal Missionary Baptist Church.
However, Royal and its near neighbor Charity Missionary Baptist Church, both on East Montague Avenue just past the interstate and train tracks, are reinvigorating the area by raising new roofs and walls to serve Jesus and the world beyond.
Both growing churches considered relocating to find new space for their growing flocks. Instead, both decided to stay put.
"People need to see something close to them that inspires," Holt says. "We made a choice not to relocate. We wanted to try and stay and help build the community. It shows an investment in the community."
The same holds true across the street at Charity.
Without intending to, the two churches are building at the same time, using the same contractor, their construction at remarkably similar stages. And they aren't duplicating efforts.
"It's a study in cooperation," says the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, pastor of Charity and former national staff member of the NAACP. "We're not in competition. We're in collaboration."
Charity is building a new sanctuary and renovating its current one to create more education space. Royal is building a large Family Life Center, complete with a gym and fitness center, along with an education building and fellowship hall.
"Only God could set it up to where we are building at the same time - and not building two of the same things but instead things that are complementary," Rivers says.
Both expansions will benefit the entire Liberty Hill community and beyond, they say.
"We can be a beacon for it to live up to its name, a beacon on the hill," Rivers says. "We're not only concerned about our own members but our own community."
However, both local pastors say real growth, deeper growth of the soul, needs more than construction. "The community needs the church to be clearly visible and active," Rivers says.
When Holt came to Royal 20 years ago, the church held functions in a 100-seat fellowship hall. Today, the choir alone could fill it.
With so much growth, the 3,000-member church is constructing two new buildings that will span nearly 46,000 square feet. If a healthy spirit is tied to a healthy mind and body, Royal members and the surrounding community will have a vast new space to pursue that holistic health.
The Family Life Center, set to open in January 2015, will house a fitness center, gym and track along with an upscale banquet and conference center that can seat 500 complete with a chef serving up a soul-food friendly menu.
The church also is building a 300-seat fellowship hall and education center, which should be completed around Sept. 1.
The new space will be open to the entire community for what Holt calls a small fee. The goal is to be self-sustaining and encourage people to get active in a Christian atmosphere. That means curbing what Holt calls "drive-by praise," those who stop by for worship once in a while but not much else.
"It will be open to the community, not a building that's isolated like a country club of our own," Holt says. "Once we attract them inside, we allow Christ to change lives."
Faith and justice
Down the road at Charity, Rivers recently met with two teenage girls. They had been with a friend at a party where shots were fired. Hand-in-hand they fled, running until one fell down and was killed.
How should they move forward after such an awful loss?
Charity held three back-to-school revivals, send-offs before Christ as students headed back to the pressures of school for the year. They framed it around choices: about peers, dating, guns and violence.
"The young people wanted to do it, and I wanted to do it, before they go back to school," Rivers says. "The church cannot be silent."
Take Jerod Frazier, the church's social justice minister, a father who grew up at Charity and later became a police officer working to keep streets safe, children in the pews and congregants out fighting social injustice.
"How can the church sit idly by?" Frazier asks. "That is arrogance, and it's ungodly."
Meanwhile, Frazier had his own dream, a seemingly unreachable one of law school. Then Rivers and the church stepped in. They gave him a quiet place to study and held him accountable to succeed.
He gets his bar exam results around Halloween.
It is part of the church's holistic look at people's health, faith and dreams. Already, Charity helps members handle their finances, improve their health and pursue education. It holds a Christian debutante ministry and a men-in-training ministry. A few Sundays ago, Rivers challenged members to lose 10 pounds with him before his pastoral anniversary next month.
It's why he likes the church motto: Build the People, Build the Church. Now for the church-building part.
Rivers came to Charity in 2008. He met a congregation long committed to its pastors - Rivers was just the third in 60 years - and to the church's future.
"This church lives up to its name, Charity. It's a loving church. The Lord has made us for each other," Rivers says. Yet, the relatively small flock had struggled to reach their dream of building a new sanctuary.
Rivers set to work. First, he sat down with the future of Charity, its youth, and asked: What do you want from your new pastor? They wanted children's church, a place where they could worship in ways relevant to them.
"We'll do that," he said.
Another teen asked Rivers to focus on the youth. After all, he was there. His parents weren't. Yes, you have to work with the parents," Rivers says. "But what if parents can't, or won't, engage?"
The church reached out more directly to its adolescents.
But with more worshippers came space problems. Since Rivers arrived five years ago, almost 500 new names have joined the church rolls.
Finally, the church secured a loan last year. Rivers still recalls attending intercessory prayers the next day. He cried uncontrollably, moved as he was by joy and thankfulness.
"The weight of accomplishment came upon me. The Lord was doing what we were praying for," Rivers says.
Today, that dream is taking physical shape. Charity broke ground in January on an 8,000-square-foot building. The building will house the new sanctuary, slated to seat 450 to 500 worshippers, about double its current capacity. It should open around Thanksgiving.
In turn, the new sanctuary will allow its current sanctuary to become a fellowship and banquet hall and education building.
"The Lord has blessed us to continue to grow," Rivers says. "We've been humbled and honored that folks continue to come."
Holt doesn't want the energy that new construction brings to ebb after work crews finish. "Everything we're doing will outlive us. It's not about a building, it's about the people," Holt says.
His members plan to help cut the grass at homes where no able-bodied person lives. They want to help with home repairs and other needs.
"When you see building something 6 to 7 million dollars across the street from you, it inspires you to pick up your trash," he says. "It builds dreams about what a success you can be."
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Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston is building a new Family Life Center and education building that will span nearly 46,000 square feet.×
Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston is building a new Family Life Center and education building which will span nearly 46,000 square feet.×
The Rev. Isaac Holt, pastor of Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.×
Young people were the focus at Charity Missionary Baptist Church on East Montague Avenue during a recent “Turn-Up” back-to-school event.×
Rev. Rivers leads Charity Missionary Baptist Church on East Montague Avenue, where the youth had a “Turn-Up” back-to-school service earlier this month.×
The center now is under construction.×
Jeane M. Robinson teaches children’s church class at Charity Missionary Baptist.×
Rev. Jerod D.Frazier (center) leads the worship serve at Charity Missionary Baptist Church, which is building a new, larger sanctuary.×
Royal Missionary Baptist is constructing two new buildings.×
Charity Missionary Baptist is building a larger sanctuary on East Montague Avenue and will turn the old one into education space.×
Jeane M.Robinson teaches children’s church class at Charity Missionary Baptist in North Charleston.×