John Scott never owned a car.

Growing up on Coming Street, the downtown Charleston native walked to worship at Shiloh AME Church around the corner on Smith Street.

Those days are over.

Shiloh's building still stands, but the property is owned by the city of Charleston and the church has moved to West Ashley. Scott will take the church bus on Sunday mornings to service.

"I'm going to miss it," said Scott, 84, of walking to the Smith Street sanctuary. "But there's nothing I can do."

The Holy City's historic core is losing houses of worship because of gentrification, limited parking and space to grow and do ministry, as well as high church maintenance costs. Shiloh, Greater Macedonia AME, Zion-Olivet Presbyterian, St. Matthew Baptist, Plymouth Church and New Tabernacle Fourth Street Baptist have either moved or have tried to leave downtown — some seeking new opportunities in areas like West Ashley and North Charleston.

Between 1980 and 2010, the peninsula's black population dropped by more than half from about 30,000 to around 15,000. Simultaneously, its white population rose from 15,000 to just above 20,000.

This coincided with rising rents and property values. For example, the median sale price for homes north of the Crosstown Expressway has more than quadrupled since the late 1990s, from $74,500 in 1996 to $325,000 in 2014.

As the historically black communities change, local churches feel the impact. Enticed by lucrative offers from eager home buyers, some of the churches' members sell their downtown homes, move away, and never return.

In other instances, increased development leaves congregations landlocked with no room to expand. Parking also becomes more scarce.

Shiloh AME Church

Shiloh AME Church located at 172 Smith St. in downtown Charleston will be moving to a new property at 2324 Ashley River Rd. West Ashley. Brad Nettles/Staff

Changing demographics

Black churches in Charleston have been anchors in their communities.

Zion-Olivet's roots date back to 1848, when Zion Presbyterian, a historically African-American congregation was founded near Calhoun and Meeting streets. It later merged with Olivet Presbyterian in 1959.

The congregation later moved to what would eventually be named the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial District, which has long served as a commercial, residential and social hub for black residents. On Cannon Street, the congregation offered free school supplies, health fairs, financial planning, teen pregnancy programs, summer feeding events and regular worship.

"We were serving almost 400 people a day," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Sidney Davis, who has led the congregation since in 1991.

But over time, predominantly white college students and higher-income white residents moved into the neighborhood. 

Davis said almost 80 percent of the church's 150-plus members lived downtown in 1991. By 2015, most were commuting from Summerville, North Charleston and Moncks Corner. Today, only four families still live on the peninsula. 

Some black residents cashed in their homes to eager buyers.

Peter Meggett, 74, grew up in Zion-Olivet and is one the church's few members still living on the peninsula. He owns a five-bedroom home worth around $400,000 on Riverside Drive. He gets frequent offers from potential home buyers but says he's not selling because it's where his children grew up.

"I’m not going to let them push me out," Meggett said.

Just south, Scott was attending Shiloh AME as he saw black neighbors selling houses they inherited from their parents.

"I felt very embarrassed," Scott said.

On the East Side, Greater Macedonia AME faced similar issues.

The current edifice was built in 1965 to serve the adjacent Ansonborough Homes and the surrounding black neighborhoods.

Worshippers recalled the church's revivals and inspiring services.

When Hurricane Hugo stormed through in 1989, the homes where most of the parishioners lived were damaged. Ansonborough Homes was later demolished. Many black parishioners moved away, and Macedonia’s membership declined. 

Today, most of the surrounding neighborhood is white. Macedonia's members commute from other municipalities.

The church purchased a lot at 725 Savage Road in West Ashley.

Macedonia AME Church

Greater Macedonia AME Church is moving from 48 Alexander St. in downtown Charleston to a new building under construction on Savage Road West Ashley. Brad Nettles/Staff

Other churches, which historically had regional appeal, remain downtown.

Ebenzer AME, located on Nassau Street on the East Side, draws members from across the tri-county area. The Rev. William Swinton, the church's pastor, said Ebenezer did not suffer severe membership losses as the East Side gentrified.

"We never had the majority of our members living in the peninsula," Swinton said. “Our challenge became how do we park their cars when they come into worship."

Parking issues

As some churches dwindled in membership, limited parking space seemed to have struck the fatal blow for many black congregations who ultimately opted to move.

Shiloh was rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo in its original location at 172 Smith St. According the Rev. Eugene Collins, the church's pastor who arrived in 2010, the congregation always had a hard time finding a nearby parking space.

Things only got worse over time.

"As the College of Charleston grew and folks started selling the property … and the college students started coming in, the parking dwindled," Collins said.

Zion-Olivet faced the same problem when MUSC purchased a lot several years ago next to the church.

The church, previously at 134 Cannon St., purchased a house across the road that they wanted to demolish to create a parking lot. The Charleston Board of Architectural Review rejected the proposal.

“It just got to the point where trying to carry out a ministry downtown was becoming more and more difficult," Davis said. "We were being squeezed."

Zion Olivet Presbyterian Church

Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church has moved from 134 Canon St. and now worships at Advent Lutheran Church located at 3347 Rivers Ave, North Charleston. Brad Nettles/Staff

Macedonia is sandwiched between city-owned lots on Alexander Street. Worshipers constantly found parking tickets on their windshields after attending functions during the week.

Charleston City Councilman Robert Mitchell said when the communities were majority black, residents and businesses respected the churches and let them park on their property.

Many new neighbors haven't been as welcoming, he said, often calling the city's parking enforcement on worshippers who parked in their spots during the week.

“(The churches) were very sacramental for the African-American community," Mitchell said of the churches. "The influx of people moving in didn’t look at it the same way.”

Mitchell, who attends Mount Zion AME on Glebe Street, wishes more black churches had the foresight to purchase properties years ago. Now, it's too late for the city to help, he said.

"The horse is running. You can’t catch him now," he said. "The only thing the city can do, and we have, is asking our parking enforcement to be very lenient on the people who come to church."

'Going to grow'

Churches are seeing the bright side.

Macedonia will leave its old sanctuary, which seats about 200, for a six-acre property that will be able to host outdoor picnics, youth summits and alternative worship experiences. Its members hope to cash out on their old property and use the money to complete construction of their new church, which is nearly 75 percent complete.

Zion-Olivet, which sold its Cannon Street church for $2 million before moving in with Advent Lutheran Church on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston, will use the funds to purchase a new site for ministry. The church currently is enjoying worshiping with the predominantly white Lutheran congregation.

Shiloh closed on a 3.5-acre site on Ashley River Road in West Ashley. The new facility will seat 300 and has a baptismal pool. 

"That’s going to draw people, too," Collins said. "A lot of folks have never been baptized. The church going to grow."

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