By Jessica Connor
CHARLESTON – In its heyday, Asbury-St. James United Methodist Church was a fixture in the downtown Charleston community. Its gymnasium, built in 1956, was the first on the peninsula, and hundreds flocked to the church for basketball, fellowship and outreach.
But years of a changing demographic and an exodus of its members to the suburbs left the once strong church in decline. With just 40 to 45 members, the historic church was on the verge of closing just four years ago.
Then came the Asbury-St. James renaissance.
Steadily, the reinvigorated congregation began to finds its new voice in the world, its new mission. The church turned outward. Attendance flourished.
And over the last year, a new mission project has sealed the church’s fate as a thriving house of God with a bright future – the makeover of its gymnasium from vacant space to ample missioner housing.
Students and other volunteers from all over the country are now able to come to Charleston for service projects and use the gym at Asbury-St. James as lodging. The gym provides all the amenities volunteers need on a mission trip: showers, restrooms, cots, a complete commercial kitchen, air-conditioning and heat. Huge partitions divide the space so males and females can bunk separately, plus there are separate meeting rooms, a lounge and an administrator’s office.
”It looks like a Red Cross shelter with the partition down the middle, shiny floors, cots on rotation like a barracks hall, cubbies behind each cot where they can put their personal belongings,” said the Rev. Timothy G. Shaw, senior pastor.
It’s also inexpensive – Asbury-St. James charges just $5/day to cover utilities and building maintenance.
Dream come true
The vision came a year ago, when Shaw was reappointed as pastor.
“I was sitting at Annual Conference listening to all the speakers, and I thought, ‘Since I’ll be reappointed, what new ways could we continue the growth of the business plan of this church? What ways could we promote outreach and evangelism, which was the next step in order for us to be a strong, healthy, spiritual church working in all areas?’”
Shaw remembered how well the gym had served one mission group from Hickory, N.C., which had used the space for a week.
Racking his brain for ways the church could grow, all of a sudden Shaw had a vision: Either start using the gym immediately to house similar mission groups, or tear the gym down and build a three-story parking garage – a hot commodity in landlocked downtown Charleston.
Filled with enthusiasm, Shaw brought the idea to the church council, which gave a resounding yes. With help from church member Bob Lanier, they quickly did a feasibility and cost study to see what would be needed to get the gym in shape for such an effort.
Thirty days later, Shaw said, they were ready to go, spreading the word to mission organizations like Habitat for Humanity and throughout the Charleston District of the UMC.
In a year, they’ve housed groups from Villanova University, St. Margaret’s School in Virginia, St. Mary’s in Tennessee, Georgetown University, St. Ambrose University in Iowa, Centre College in Kentucky and more. All of those teams have come through Habitat for Humanity, and now, Asbury-St. James is working with the United Methodist Committee on Relief and with the Rev. Carol Cash on expanding their ability to work with UMCOR.
“I’m an idea person, I’m a dreamer,” Shaw said. “But my dreams come true. God has blessed me with the ability that people are always present and the funds always appear to make this happen.”
‘Tremendous help’ to missioners
Shaw said he isn’t surprised by the success of the gym-turned-mission-center makeover.
“Who doesn’t want to come to Charleston, South Carolina, for the week?” he asked. “We’re in the top 10 most-sought-after destinations for a vacation, and Charleston is the Number 2 place to have a wedding in America only behind Las Vegas, Nevada.”
Coordinators of Centre College’s alternative spring break trip to Charleston in March said they really appreciated the gym at Asbury-St. James.
“A lot of students get interested in community service, but if we have to pay for a hotel on top of finding meals and doing the service, it gets prohibitively expensive,” said Patrick Noltemeyer, director of community service at Centre. “To have a place like that is a tremendous help.”
Dawn Brown-Piatt, assistant director of admissions at Centre, said two other teams from Centre stayed in low-cost volunteer housing in Charleston for that trip, but the team that stayed at Asbury-St. James’ gym had the best facility.
“One group stayed in a house and had 20 people sharing one bathroom – that’s one shower and one toilet!” she said. “(At Asbury-St. James), we had a men’s room and a women’s room, and there was time for everybody to take showers pretty quickly and actually spend time in Charleston. It’s a great facility.”
Good for the congregation, too
Not only is the gym makeover helping the students, but it’s also helping the church. Members bring little treats for the students: cakes, brownies, cookies.
And Shaw asks the students to attend Sunday morning worship and speak about the mission work they are doing in the area, which really helps the congregation feel the connectionalism.
“The church has become excited about it,” Lanier said.
Many members are elderly and cannot get out and work physically in the community, but Lanier said that by providing the facility for others to do that work, the congregation feels a sense of being a part of the project.
“What happens in a lot of churches is they lose their mission, and this is partly helping to bring back our mission and speak out to the community,” Lanier said. “I think we have forgotten in most instances what we are about as a church in general – that we should be outreaching – and that’s an important thing especially in older congregations. We should be speaking out to the community and not always turned into ourselves.”
Marlene Seaborn, chair of the outreach and evangelism committee and the church council, said Asbury-St. James is feeling the Christian responsibility of outreach, which is truly revitalizing the church. “We’ve been trying to find our niche as a church, and we have this facility, and so we’re reclaiming it for that purpose,” Seaborn said. “It’s so wonderful to see 30 young people reaching out to our community through us, and that feels right.”
Lanier said that during the last six weeks, they have had 98 students come through the gym and complete seven major projects, including roofing, porch and siding work, landscaping and a choral group who sang for crisis ministries. Shaw said hearing the students talk about their efforts really inspires church members.
“When you have people in your congregation who cannot go out and stand on a ladder and put roofs on houses, it works all the way around,” Shaw said.
Today, Asbury-St. James is well on its way to a vi
brant and active future creating disciples and helping its community. With their new gym makeover, their feet are now firmly planted in missions outreach, and they look to the future with optimism and grace.
“Sometimes people give up before it’s time,” Shaw said. “But if God is in it, it will change. He will see His work is completed.”
Want to bring a mission group to Asbury-St. James? Request an application and information packet by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, calling 843-722-2826 or writing the church at 754 Rutledge Ave., Charleston, SC 29403, attention Bob Lanier.