Like several other black churches on the rapidly gentrifying Charleston peninsula, St. John's Reformed Episcopal is hanging on.

The church at 91 Anson St. is struggling to map out its future downtown where new apartments and pricier residences — many occupied by white college students and working professionals — have changed the demographics of what had been a largely black neighborhood.

“The struggle for us is we are still trying to make the adjustment," said the Rev. Willie Hill, pastor of St. John's.

While battling gentrification, the congregation also faced internal struggles. Its former pastor was imprisoned for forging a signature to acquire a bank loan, and some members left and never returned.

Others stayed and forgave their past shepherd. Ultimately, members' faith was strengthened and their spirits were more determined to worship God where their ancestors did.

'A neighborhood church'

In 1873, the Reformed Episcopal denomination formed when it split from the Protestant Episcopal Church after the Protestant group refused to train and ordain black ministers. The movement entered the Charleston area the following year when the Rev. Peter Stevens, a white Confederate Army veteran and former superintendent of The Citadel, left the Protestant Episcopal Church and organized groups of black freedmen across the Lowcountry.

One of the groups met in the home at 43 Elizabeth St. and that's where St. John's congregation formed in 1906.

Residing in an city still clinging to its racist roots, the black parishioners sought refuge in worship.

It wasn't until 1971 that St. John's would move into a Gothic Revival structure on Anson Street — an edifice with its own historical significance.

Built in 1850 by Presbyterian black freedmen and slaves, according to archives from the Historic Charleston Foundation and St. John's church records, the church was the site of an 1857 revival in Charleston.

Here, as the country prepared to enter the bloodiest war in American history, blacks and whites, slaves and freedmen, prayed and sang hymns together.

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Selina Brown and Paul Brown Sr. talk outside after a service at St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

During much of the 20th century, the surrounding  community, which included the Ansonborough public housing development at what is present-day Gadsdenboro Park, was mostly black.

By the time St. John's moved to Anson Street in the early '70s, it had around 40 members. Nearby, Emanuel AME, Macedonia AME, Zion Presbyterian and other churches also served a community where many parishioners walked to Sunday services. 

Members filed in St. John's pews for morning worship, revival services and afternoon programs.

"They were neighborhood people who came to a neighborhood church," Hill said.

Religion was taken seriously, said Patty Comfort-Capers, whose ancestors were part of the early group that formed St. John's.

Growing up with her four brothers, her family walked from their St. Philip Street home for Sunday school and worship in the mornings, left, and returned for a 6 p.m. service later that day.

If she missed church, she couldn't play outside with her friends.

“We were prayed up," she said. "We need to get back to that.”

Challenges and conflicts

Most of those who attended St. John's lived in the Ansonborough Homes, a public housing complex that once stood near the S.C. Aquarium.

After Hurricane Hugo flooded many of the homes in 1989, many black residents left and never returned. The city eventually tore it down.

Today, the area is increasingly white. Buist Academy, the Charleston Gaillard Center and several houses surround St. John's, which has limited parking and no room to expand.

Its current congregation consists mainly of elderly residents who commute from West Ashley. Many of its young people went to college and never came back, opting for contemporary megachurches, members said. Maintenance costs on the 160-year-old building also pose a challenge for the congregation.

This is a familiar story for many black historic churches downtown that have either left or have tried to leave the peninsula because of gentrification and high costs for maintaining old structures.

Hill said the only way to survive downtown is to reach out to the new neighbors. A church afraid to engage with the community will eventually have to close up shop.

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Selina Brown and Paul Brown Sr. talk outside after a service at St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"The truth is there is no vision for a future if we maintain that mindset," he said. "That is one of the symptoms of a dying church."

In addition to battling gentrification, St. John's had to face internal woes. In 2012, its former pastor, Ronald Satterfield, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after he forged the church secretary's name to acquire a $250,000 bank loan and lost the money in an investment scheme.

Satterfield, who had served the church since 2000, operated what federal authorities called a Ponzi scheme between March 2006 and March 2009, during which time the stock market crashed.

Some church members lost money. Some left the congregation and never came back.

For current members, such as Comfort-Capers, it's still a touchy subject. She decided to stay.

"For a while, I was upset at what had happened," she said. "I just know that we, as human beings, make mistakes. We do things we shouldn’t do. We have to learn to love and forgive.”

They demonstrated that forgiveness one Sunday when Satterfield, after his release, returned to St. John's for worship.

Hill, who was assigned to the congregation in 2013, invited Satterfield to the altar to pray. The former pastor asked the parishioners for forgiveness. Tears were shed, Hill said.

"It brought us closer," said Paul Brown, senior warden at the church.

'Breath of fresh air'

Today, members of St. John's say they've let go of the past and are focused on maintaining the building and helping their church thrive.

The building needs work: Its stucco exterior is peeling; its roof is weathered; and portions of its iron gate along the street are held together by duct tape. 

Since 2015, a sign rests in front of the church showing its efforts to raise $300,000 for renovation. So far, they haven't reached that goal.

But the members are supportive, and church leaders hope to begin renovations on its roof and parsonage shortly.

"We're holding on," Brown said. “The folks who are there, they give."

Hill arrived to lead the congregation of about 140 people after serving churches in Berkeley County and Cainhoy in 2013. He accepted the invitation to pastor even though he knew the church was struggling financially and had experienced some internal controversy.

"The Lord just laid on my heart, 'This is where I’m calling you to come,'" he said. “St. John’s was a real breath of fresh air.”

Hill was determined to help the church excel downtown as other historic churches on the peninsula were shuttering their doors.

To attract youth, Hill has welcomed college gospel choirs to sing in its sanctuary. The parsonage will be renovated to accommodate college choirs who want to sing at the church.

St. John's is still serving the elderly, too. The church recently started a noon Bible study for older members who can't travel at night, and Hill also brings communion to those in Mount Pleasant nursing homes.

Meanwhile, the church also established a ministry that sends care packages to church members who are away at school. 

“It builds that relationship," Hill said. "It still doesn’t mean they are going to come back. But they know that there is that connection. That’s the intent — to let them still maintain that connection with their home church.”

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