A pastor of a small church is called to do more than preach.
Clementa Pinckney would bravely lead his congregation at Porter’s Chapel AME Church and Jericho AME in singing a new hymn and stop when it was clear the tune had derailed.
“ ‘Let’s try that again,’ ” church musician Vernell Wright said, mimicking Pinckney’s deep voice during a recent Wednesday bible study. She cackled at the memory. “He would make us laugh.”
Pinckney was killed with eight others in a shooting at a Bible study he led at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year. His time at Porter’s Chapel AME in Port Royal and Jericho AME Church in Beaufort, where he preached from 1996 to 1998, is a key part of the sister churches’ history that spans more than 100 years.
That history is recorded only in memories. The congregation now meets only at Jericho on Broad River Boulevard — the last service at Porter’s Chapel was in 2004 after attendance dwindled.
The Rev. James Mack of Jericho AME is inviting anyone ever involved with either church to a weekend-long reunion starting Sept. 2. Part of the goal will be to draw on the collective wisdom of those who attended the churches to better record its history.
Porter’s Chapel traces its roots to Parris Island and was brought to Port Royal in 1901, according to church lore. Jericho AME was founded about the time the Civil War ended, Mack said.
“Gathering history takes time,” said church member Philicia Parker. “You’re talking a span of 1901 to 2016 — that’s a lot of years.”
Pinckney’s involvement at Porter’s Chapel is among the reasons Port Royal is working to help church leaders preserve the building and relocate the structure to town property. The church would donate the building to the town when the title is cleared and keep the land.
A restored Porter’s Chapel could be reimagined as a visitor’s center or library, in a prominent spot like Anchor Park on Paris Avenue. The town is working with Lowcountry Council of Governments to explore state grants to pay for the work, but the title must be cleared first.
The church hopes Porter’s Chapel’s next use includes telling the church’s story.
“We never really were a good-sized church,” said longtime member Georgia Jenkins-Smalls. “But we sort of managed to do what we needed to do.”
Pinckney certainly is a central figure in that story. From October 1996 to March 1998 he preached at Porter’s Chapel and Jericho — two Sundays at each, each month.
He helped develop a youth ministry at the church. Children were invited to pick hymns and scripture readings. Pinckney would put them on a bus for trips to Myrtle Beach. He helped incorporate more contemporary music.
“He really gave us, as youth, an outlet to be in church and enjoy church,” said Kearstan Bryan, who is 32 now and was a child when Pinckney her pastor.
Pinckney used the story of the Three Little Pigs to teach self-sufficiency. He brought in a mustard seed, the subject of one of Jesus’ parables, showing its tiny size with a pair of tweezers. With a pair of walnuts, he taught children in the church to work together.
When he wasn’t in his Sunday suit and tie, Pinckney dressed in a plaid shirt and khakis, a uniform his former members had a good laugh about this month.
Before Jennifer Pinckney became Clementa’s wife, the pastor brought her church. He wanted its members to know her and secretly sought their approval.
Jericho and Porter’s Chapel shuffled through their share of pastors. But after Pinckney left, he remained connected.
He stopped by workplaces and asked about church members. After Mack became pastor, Pinckney would begin conversations by asking about each member individually and then move to their family members.
“ ‘You make sure you do them right,’ ” Mack remembers Pinckney saying. “He always talked about what he could do to help.”
The town and church hope Porter’s Chapel can become a gathering spot where people can learn more about the history of the AME church and black community.
The building appears from the outside to need a lot of work. The roof is sagging, and broken windows dot the few frames that aren’t boarded up.
Original benches in the church have been moved to the Penn Center.
The skeleton of the building is strong, Mack said.
“The church has had a strong history,” he said. “We will get it preserved.
“We’re hoping it will be a magnet for the community.”