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‘Church of the locked gate’ swings doors wide open

By Jessica Connor

CONWAY—It used to be known as the church with the locked gate —locked to keep out teens doing wheelies on the grass, but locked nonetheless.

But today, symbolic of its new direction, Joseph B. Bethea United Methodist Church keeps its gates, and its hearts, minds and doors, open wide.

That s because Joseph B. Bethea UMC is going through a spiritual makeover, rebirthing itself from a tiny church operating in inward-focused survival mode into a mission-minded outward-focused church, all in the name of Christ.

There s a lot of excitement,  said the Rev. George Olive, who has pastored the church since July. People are coming back, and not only back, but jumping in. 

Instead of a dozen worshippers on Sunday morning, the church is seeing 25 and 30 ”more and more each week. So many new things are going on, from fixing up the crumbling ceiling and dilapidated decking on the fellowship hall, to forming a choir, to praying about a church-wide mission project.

It has come a long way in a short time, and its pastor and members can t wait to see where they are a year from now.

We have a different spirit these days,  said J.V. Mott, a certified lay servant and next year s church lay leader. It s a Spirit-filled, Bible-based church, and I think we ve got a lot to fight for. 

Big dreams

Named for South Carolina s first African-American bishop, Joseph B. Bethea UMC had big dreams when it started as a church plant 21 years ago.

It was designed to be a multiracial congregation, attracting African-American, white, Hispanic and Asian families, and it flourished. People loved worshipping in a structure that had nurtured souls for centuries. The sanctuary started as a church on a plantation in Georgetown County, then served for many years as the sanctuary for Belin Memorial UMC, Murrells Inlet, until Belin got a new building and the sanctuary was transported to the 10-acre site for Joseph B. Bethea.

In its heyday housing Joseph B. Bethea UMC, the tiny structure boasted 90 souls in the pews, and they were doing good work for God, Olive said.

But like so many churches in the last decade, membership began to dwindle. Many of the Hispanic families began to move away with the passage of the state s more stringent immigration laws, Olive said. The church s membership got smaller and smaller, and funds left along with them. The church racked up about $20,000 in debt to the conference for unpaid insurance direct billing, and they hadn t been paying their apportionments.

It was very depressing for a while,  said member John Shumway. We got to the point there were days there were less than 10 people in the church, including the minister and the piano player. 

Trying to be good stewards of the church property, the congregation began locking the gate to the church so construction trucks or local teenagers doing wheelies couldn t tear up the grass. It left the church with an unintended closed-door reputation.

Oh, that s the church with the locked gate,  Olive would hear when canvassing the community.

But now things are different. The gates are open, and the Spirit is moving among the membership.

Invigorated with a desire to see their church vibrant and vital, the congregation is holding workdays, and talking about selling some land or raising money in other ways to pay off conference debt and fix their decking. They re in talks with Belin Memorial about a mentoring relationship, and dialoguing about joint local and international mission trips. On Nov. 2, seven churches in the area are throwing a block party at Joseph B. Bethea to help the church offer a warm and welcoming outreach to neighboring communities.

Big dreams are abundant: a golf tournament to raise funds for church ministries. A church-wide mission project that will unite the congregation as a family throughout the week and not just Sunday mornings.  New and interesting Bible studies. Possibly a community garden. Major building repairs. A focus on growth through service, knowing that numbers will follow.

We re trying to send the signal: we re open for business ”God s business,  Olive said.

˜A special place

Despite its locked gate reputation, Joseph B. Bethea UMC has always has a uniquely diverse membership ”not only in race and culture, but in age, profession and birthplace, as well. Unlike some tiny churches where most members are related to each other, this congregation comprises mostly separate relocated families. Some are Southerners; some are not. Some are retirees; some are active working professionals.

Yet somehow, they ve built a close-knit family that manages to transcend many human-made barriers.

Many churches today are decidedly segregated on Sunday mornings ”people of the same age, color or cult
ure tend to gravitate together for worship. But the Kingdom is much more diverse, and so is Joseph B. Bethea UMC, Olive said.

The Rev. Dickie Knight, Marion District superintendent, said he appreciates the church s effort to renew itself, particularly because its diverse makeup is so distinctive.

It s a different congregation, a cross-cultural congregation, and I think they take pride in that. and that s what maked Joseph B. Bethea a little more unique than most churches ”that they can attract people who are of different colors and different races and cultures,  Knight said.

On the surface, Olive said, it makes for an interesting picture: the mix of traditionally white worship styles with traditionally African-American styles. And somehow, it all works perfectly.

You ve got this old white guy at the pulpit, and you re hearing amens and people are standing and singing spontaneously ”it s wonderful!  Olive said, laughing. I m having fun. 

While the church was intentionally designed to be multi-ethnic, members say today race doesn t matter a bit. They pay little mind to the fact that there s a white pastor or an African-American music director or what style they worship in. It s a church filled with the Holy Spirit, rooted in Scripture and driven by the divine directive to go and make disciples. That s all that matters to them.

We don t have any color in the church,  Mott said. It s about open hearts, open minds and making disciples for Jesus Christ, and we ve got people from all walks of life and all areas. We re just a church of people, and it doesn t matter black or white or green or purple. 

It s really special,  Shumway said. Possibly because it s so small, but it really, really does feel like family. We feel we have a church family we have gotten to know through the years, and (during low periods) there were times we tried out a couple other churches, but when we came back, we still felt, ˜That’s where we belong. We love the people we go to church with. 

In today s fast-paced world, where so much community interaction occurs on social media, that concept of color-blind open-armed family  is perhaps what Joseph B. Bethea can best offer to the people it seeks to reach. And Olive and other church members say they are committed to doing whatever it takes to reach those people through mission, relationship and an improved, inviting campus.

Somebody entrusted us with this church, and we should do everything we can to maintain it. It s a family tradition,  Mott said.

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