What a day of rejoicing this should be

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 28, 2012 

James Oglethorpe stopped by Beaufort on his way to establish Georgia and apparently found nourishment for his soul.

He and about 100 of his colonists were entertained by the rector and members of this county's first church, the Parish Church of St. Helena. The church history reads: "An aide to Oglethorpe later wrote that their visit was with 'Strangers of a better sort.' "

If we remain strangers of a better sort, we can thank our churches.

Today, for the second consecutive Sunday, a church in our community celebrates a remarkable milestone.

Last Sunday, the Lord Bishop of London came to mark the 300th anniversary of the Parish Church of St. Helena.

This Sunday, First African Baptist Church on Hilton Head Island marks its 150th anniversary. It is the oldest institution on Hilton Head, with its founding predating the emancipation of the enslaved.

Our religious roots run even deeper than that. The earliest European settlement in this county came 450 years ago on what is now Parris Island. Charlesfort was founded by Jean Ribaut and his little band of French Huguenots. They came seeking religious freedom.

Flash forward to the modern development of Hilton Head, almost a century after the founding of First African Baptist. The earliest developers -- the Frasers, Hacks and McIntoshes -- gave land for Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal and Catholic churches, perhaps more.

Now there seems to be a church on every corner in Beaufort County.

Not that this has turned us into saints. It's like the Rev. Tony Campolo said when he led ecumenical services here. He said he finally learned how to answer people who say they don't want to go to church because it's full of hypocrites. He says, "Good, you'll fit right in."

Despite that, it's hard to think of any facet of life that has not been improved by our churches.

Nearly from the outset, the churches have provided schools.

First African Baptist and others that followed also provided a judicial system, education, leadership opportunities and social services for African Americans.

When the St. Helena church opened in the heart of Beaufort as part of the Church of England, it was the official state church and acted as the local government.

Houses of worship have always sheltered other activities: Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, blood drives, Alzheimer's respite groups, Scout troops, concerts, civic groups, soup kitchens, food banks and even other churches.

The first gathering for what would become a synagogue on Hilton Head was a Rosh Hashanah dinner held at Christ Lutheran Church. Its first Shabbat service was held at First Presbyterian Church, where Congregation Beth Yam would meet for years until building a synagogue.

Churches have provided preschool and kindergarten when the school system did not. They provide after-school care.

They have thrift stores that funnel money into scores of charities.

They have family-counseling centers.

They promote the arts through fantastic choral offerings and organ recitals.

They serve Thanksgiving breakfasts and Thanksgiving dinners to all comers. They deliver full meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They serve dinner in a downtown park on Friday night.

They provide food, clothing, counseling, education and spiritual support to migrant workers.

They send volunteers out to do repair jobs on homes of the poor.

They have banded together to send children home from school each Friday with food for the weekend in a program called Backpack Buddies.

They put the homeless in motels when it is extra hot or cold.

They house homeless families through a program called Family Promise.

They take altar flowers to hospitals, deliver hot meals to the injured and support the bereaved.

They hold community bazaars, drive the elderly and build Habitat for Humanity houses.

They tutor children in failing schools, buy school uniforms and student supplies.

They have organized a medical clinic for the poor, and a community singing of the Messiah.

They respond to natural disasters, most notably Hurricane Hugo in the Lowcountry in 1989. They went to Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They set families up in a new life here after they fled from Katrina like refugees.

The late Sister Ellen Robertson struggled tirelessly to get support for the Lowcountry Human Development Center she founded in 1972 at Camp St. Mary's in Okatie. With the help of churches and local governments, it educated pregnant teenagers and cared for their babies -- and provided many other services to people with little hope.

All this, in addition to what's considered the main duty of the church: to save lost souls.

When the windows at First African Baptist Church rattle with joyful praise this morning, everyone in the county should pause to give thanks.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content: Hilton Head church that saw 'dawn of freedom' for the enslaved celebrates 150 years

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