By Jessica Connor
SUMTER — Like many churches today, St. John United Methodist Church had been at a crossroads.
With a large church facility and an aging-but-active congregation, the 165-member church had a host of empty rooms that weren t being used on a regular basis.
Senior pastor the Rev. Bob Huggins had read in the local newspaper about a group of Lutherans that had split from their church to join the North American Lutheran Church body, and his heart had gone out to them.
But one day, he was walking from his church to the parsonage across the street, and it just hit him.
I heard a voice in my head saying, ˜Open your doors to the Lutherans, Huggins recalled.
Today, less than six months later, St. John UMC is now home to two thriving denominations.
Immanuel Lutheran Church uses the sanctuary for worship at 9 a.m. on Sundays, then they retire to classrooms at the end of the hall for Sunday school. St. John s United Methodists hold their worship at 11 a.m. The two also share a dual-denomination fellowship meal every Wednesday night.
The two churches view the use of St. John as a true partnership “ sharing space, Huggins calls it. St. John doesn t make anything from the arrangement; Immanuel Lutheran pays no rent, just helps with the cost of additional utilities.
We all feel it s a blessing from God, said Mary Ann Brown, Immanuel Lutheran member. It just came out of the clear blue sky, and we have everything here for us “ the church, food, rooms for Sunday school, just everything.
Immanuel member Reba Mahaffey said she feels just awestruck about the arrangement.
I cannot believe we can share this facility, Mahaffey said, sitting with a group of Lutherans and United Methodists gathered at St. John for a Sept. 11 grief awareness seminar. If we could think about people working with other people and not get hung up on denomination “ she trailed off, speechless. It s amazing to me.
Immanuel members had been worshipping in a doublewide portable at Crystal Lake Golf Course thanks to Sumter s chapter of the Christian Golfers Association. And while they were grateful for the space and were able to use traditional worship elements “ an altar, a cross, flowers “ Brown said they had to set everything up and break it all down every single week. They were looking for a real church home.
Besides, Huggins said, Even though you can worship God anywhere, it doesn t have the same feeling as worshipping in a sanctuary.
It took just three months of dialogue with St. John to work out the details, and beginning the first Sunday in August, the two denominations are now happily sharing space in true ecumenical Christian love.
St. John members said they feel as blessed by the space-sharing as Immanuel members.
Member Rusty Lewis said people riding by on Sunday mornings see a lot more cars in the parking lot, which gives the impression of major activity, plus lends a more exciting feeling to the congregation.
His wife, Peggy, said she thinks it s wonderful.
What we re supposed to do as Christians is reach out to others, she said. I don t believe there s going to be denominations in heaven, so we might as well get used to it.
C.L. Shipman said he doesn t even think of them as the Lutherans.
We all believe in the same thing, Shipman said. I think of it more as finding new friends. Having them here brings a smile to your face.
Rick Schoenfeldt said St. John calls itself the little church with the big heart, and truly that s what it s about, he said.
Denomination is just a name, Schoenfeldt said. Christianity is the real deal.
The Rev. Lillian Washington, Hartsville District superintendent, said she thinks the space-sharing reflects the outward-focused spirit of United Methodism.
We talk about open doors, open hearts and open minds, and here we are actually practicing that, Washington said.
Gathered in a St. John classroom with a group of Lutherans and United Methodists, Huggins just grinned at what his church has become.
It s a blessing, he said. That s what it s all about.