At 100, Hilton Head Island church looks to past, future

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 29, 2014 

  • Anniversary events

  • Centennial Dinner, 5 p.m. Saturday, April 5, at Pinckney Hall in Sun City Hilton Head. Tickets are $50 for adults and $20 for children ages 4 to 12. To purchase tickets or for information about all events, call the church at 843-681-3678.

  • Sunday, April 6, 10 a.m., worship service at the church, 382 Squire Pope Road, led by the Rev. Deonia Simmons.

  • Nightly services at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 7, through Friday, April 11, conducted by guest ministers and their congregations.

  • Saturday, April 12, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., cookout and fun day at the church.

  • Sunday, April 13, 10 a.m. worship service led by the Rev. Deonia Simmons, and a 4 p.m. anniversary service, featuring the Rev. Kenneth C. Doe, pastor of Bethesda Christian Fellowship, St. Helena Island, and his congregation.

Members of the Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church will turn in their Bibles to Psalm 84:11 as the church celebrates 100 years on Hilton Head Island.

A nine-day commemoration will begin Saturday night with a banquet and continue all next week with nightly services and other events.

The small, white church building with orange, blue and white window panes hugs a busy Squire Pope Road, across the street from waterfront restaurants never dreamed of in 1914.

But still, it is into these Skull Creek waters that the Rev. Ben Williams takes a staff in hand and leads white-robed members of his flock into traditional baptisms.

The scene was captured in the December 1987 National Geographic magazine article: "Sea Change in the Sea Islands: 'Nowhere to Lay Down Weary Head.' "

It documented development's assault on the old African and Gullah ways.

Older members of the church remember when children had to seek God's presence in the wilderness and explain it to deacons before being accepted into the church. They recall special anniversary church meetings on a quiet island being more colorful than Broadway. They can hear the clapping and singing in weeknight praise house meetings. They say it still hurts to think about kneeling on the "mourner's bench" at the altar. They remember strict deacons, bountiful meals, and marsh tackeys hitched outside. They hum when remembering Deacon Sonny Brown lining out the hymn, "Oh, Why Not Tonight?"

But other things never change, said the pastor they affectionately call "The Rev."

"The main focus is to keep all these people together for a common cause and purpose," Williams said. "People need to understand the importance of believing and trusting in God."

OPEN ACCESS

Mount Calvary is a child of the First African Baptist Church, which was established in Mitchelville in 1862.

It sits on land donated a century ago by sisters Katie Miller and Josephine Jones, said church administrator Gloria Murray.

Its pastor is by far the senior minister on Hilton Head. This December will mark Ben Williams' 40th year at the church. He's a native of rural North Carolina who married a native islander he met in New York City, the late Elizabeth Patterson Williams.

He has seen the church grow from 75 members to about 400, and he has been continuously honored by the community.

His members stay busy serving as deacons, "walking deacons" (younger men learning from the older deacons), deaconesses, ushers, missionaries, choir members and teachers. Young people are "praise dancers." Margaret Stewart is the last survivor of the Willing Workers -- women who prepared "variety dinners" of traditional Gullah food to raise money for the church before fast food drummed them out of business.

The church has an Achievement School for pre-schoolers. Williams saw a need for a stronger educational and social foundation while working for almost 30 years in the local public schools.

One of the church's historical highlights came from an odd corner. Sugar Ray Leonard attended Mount Calvary when he trained on Hilton Head in 1987 and 1989 for fights against "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran, respectively.

Sugar Ray bought new robes for the Youth Choir, and wore one himself to sing with his mother present. As a child, Getha Leonard sent her son to church choir practice, but he went to the gym. The first boxer to win more than $100 million in purses said his mother thought he was going to be a singer, but instead he became a swinger.

Sugar Ray also bought Williams a Lincoln Town Car. And he was baptized in Skull Creek.

Mount Calvary has opened its doors to NAACP meetings and gatherings by union leaders when they organized workers at a Daufuskie Island resort.

"The black church is the one institution that blacks have always had access to," Williams said, "and by that and with that, it handles all our community affairs."

NEXT GENERATION

Mother of the church Mary Green contributes a lot, especially in song.

But for the centennial, she will be bringing her son from the Pentagon to be the keynote speaker at Saturday night's banquet.

U.S. Army Col. William "Bill" Green Jr. is a chaplain who grew up playing Gator football on Hilton Head and graduated from H.E. McCracken High.

Col. Green said he "totally embraces" the church's past, noting that his grandmother Mary Lawyer also was mother of the church, an honor for its most senior woman.

"But I will definitely be challenging the young people," he said. "The church has been bequeathed, if you will, to future generations. They must help shoulder the load in a different way."

Church elders are already in the colonel's amen corner.

Deacon Richard Oriage, 86, said islanders were better off when no one had any money.

"We were rich and didn't know it," he said.

Mary Green said that's because "people in those days were more together. The Farmers Club, the Charity Sisters, the Mothers Union worked with children and took care of the sick. When one had sorrow, we all had sorrow."

Deacon Abe Grant wants his grandchildren to know what the old people went through so that they might contribute something back to the church.

"Setbacks can't stop you," said Grant, a 76-year-old retired business owner and entrepreneur. "We all had setbacks, but we scuffled it out. The world owes you nothing. You've got to go out and get it. We have too many who are blessed and don't even know they're blessed. They have and don't even know they have."

As for the future, Grant said: "The children of this church have a lot to be thankful for. They have a lot to think about."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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