Christopher Schmidt lives in a tent.

The 50-year-old, who said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after responding to the 9/11 terror attacks while working for the city of New York's maintenance department, now works day labor jobs just to make enough money to eat.

Going to church isn't much of a priority. 

But on Saturday night, Schmidt walked into Aldersgate United Methodist Church in North Charleston for his first worship service in five years.

"It brought tears to my eyes," he said.

Schmidt heard about the service, known as The Gathering, from a friend — an indication that news is spreading about North Charleston's newest combined, contemporary-style worship service.

The two groups, Aldersgate and Enoch Chapel United Methodist churches started the monthly initiative last spring and are now hosting weekly worship services. They hope the services will continue attracting people from all walks of life and demonstrate true racial reconciliation.

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Worshipers sing and pray together during The Gathering church service at Aldersgate Methodist Church on Remount Road in North Charleston on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. The Gathering, which is a combined contemporary worship between Aldersgate United Methodist Church and Enoch Methodist Church, have combined to host weekly Saturday services instead of monthly. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

So far, it's been successful. Over the summer, the monthly effort saw nearly 100 worshippers regularly — several of whom didn't belong to either Aldersgate or Enoch. Although an expected drop in attendance occurred when the effort went weekly in September, The Gathering still drew a steady flow of 60-plus guests.

Its worshippers come from all backgrounds — young and old, employed and homeless, black and white, "churched and unchurched."

Ultimately, that's the goal.

“Hopefully we’re going to make our community and the area around us who maybe have not grown up in a church comfortable coming in there," said Judith Pfaehler, a member of Aldersgate who attends the Saturday service.

Racial reconciliation

The Gathering started, in part, as a response to the killing of Walter Scott, a black man who was shot by white North Charleston police officer Michael Slager after a tussle over a Taser — the latest incident at the time for a nation struggling with conversations on race relations.

Pastor Victoria Richardson, a black woman who had been leading the historically black Enoch Chapel at 2355 James Bell Drive for 15 years, and Pastor Erik Grayson, a white man who arrived to the predominantly-white Aldersgate at 1444 Remount Road in 2014, knew that something had to be done to offer healing and destroy barriers separating the two groups.

And it had to be more than just prayer vigils and peace-talk panel discussions.

"Love is an action word," Richardson said. "You can talk about it all day long. Until you put it in action, it's not going anywhere. If you put it in action, people will see love can really bring people together."

For the two churches, love meant praying, singing and praising God together.

While both groups are part of the same United Methodist denomination, they each have unique customs and cultures. Members wanted to familiarize themselves with the other's traditions before they planned a joint service.

Pfaehler, who is a lifelong Methodist, never visited a black church before attending Enoch. 

"It was interactive," she said of the service. “I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it."

The two churches formed a leadership team made up of members from both groups to map out what out a combined service would look like. 

So far, merging the two cultures has been tricky, but fun.

At Aldersgate, for example, Grayson typically renders a relatively brief scripted sermon and the members are usually quiet. This is different from Enoch, where the worshippers participate in call-and-response.

At The Gathering, Grayson is still learning to pause whenever he makes a good point during his sermons to give people time to say, "Amen" or "Praise the Lord."

"Jokingly, we’ve been able to laugh with it," he said.

Tyrone Montgomery, a member of Enoch who helps distribute communion at The Gathering, notes that some Aldersgate members have caught on.

“Now they’re saying, 'Praise the Lord,' too,” he laughed.

The groups do business slightly differently, too. Church meetings at Aldersgate include a printed agenda and begin at 6 p.m. sharp, rarely lasting over an hour. 

At Enoch, there's less emphasis on business and more on relationships, Grayson said. Richardson's meetings are accompanied by pork chops and sides.

"Churches are microcosms of their own cultures," Grayson said. “It causes me to slow down.”

In addition to black and white worshippers, Richardson hopes they can attract members of the surrounding Hispanic community. The goal is for the service to become a multi-ethnic body of believers, reflecting the North Charleston community that surrounds it.

Contemporary style

On Saturday, the lights inside Aldersgate's sanctuary were dimmed and replaced with blue stage lights.

Members arrived for worship dressed in T-shirts, jeans and basketball shorts.

Grayson, sporting a long-sleeve button up shirt with rolled-up sleeves and jeans, rendered a message from the Gospel of John where Jesus overturned the money exchange tables inside the Jewish temple.

Grayson's point? Sometimes there are barriers in worship that have to be removed.

"Jesus came so that you and I might know real worship," he said. "Other folks may find tradition as something that gets in the way. Sometimes we find stumbling blocks in worship."

At The Gathering, lengthy Methodist confessions and creeds are removed and there's more focus on the sermon, prayers and songs.

Instead of hymns from a choir, contemporary Christian music is performed by a band of soloists, guitarists and a drummer.

The lyrics are displayed on a projector screen.

The people love it.

"It’s a little bit more relaxed," Pfaehler said.

After service, several families gather in the church's courtyard for hot dogs, cake, chips and lemonade. They sit in lawn chairs as "Shrek" plays on an outdoor projector screen.

Ruby Hannah, who's attended Aldersgate for 43 years and goes to The Gathering, is pleased by what she sees.

"I never dreamed it would grow into this," Hannah said. "This is amazing."

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.