A world-famous African-American has come to what was once the buckle of America's slave belt to preach unity.
Episcopalians invited him, sharing the altar with an independent evangelical church.
It may not sound like the Deep South, but in Beaufort it rings as true as the steeple bell at the Parish Church of St. Helena.
The Rev. Tony Evans brings to the Lowcountry the raspy voice and conversational tone that millions have responded to since he founded a church in his living room 36 years ago.
After his sermon tonight in Beaufort, he'll return to his duties as senior pastor of that church, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, now 9,000 members strong. He'll go back to preaching on more than 500 radio stations across America and 40 foreign countries.
He heads a ministry called The Urban Alternative, with the goal of "rebuilding communities from the inside out." It includes the National Church Adopt-a-School Initiative, anti-gang intervention and scores of other efforts to lift the down-and-out.
His latest book, "Kingdom Man," is endorsed by former NFL coach Tony Dungy and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. He is chaplain of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and the Dallas Cowboys.
And at least once a week, he hits the road to preach to packed coliseums and sanctuaries.
Despite all that, Evans has big shoes to fill in Beaufort.
His appearance is a highlight of the Parish Church of St. Helena's 300th anniversary celebration. The Episcopal church downtown has already hosted the Lord Bishop of London, but the Rev. Jeffrey Miller said it also felt a historical imperative to hold a two-day event that started Thursday called "The Beaufort Revival with Dr. Tony Evans."
When the Rev. Carl Broggi of Community Bible Church quickly agreed to co-sponsor and host both nights of services in its 2,100-seat sanctuary, an amazing story had come full circle.
THE GREAT REVIVAL
In 1831, the St. Helena parish invited another popular evangelist to town, and a 10-day revival engulfed the town. Services were in the Episcopal and Baptist churches. The Rev. Daniel Baker, a Presbyterian from Savannah, told full houses that eternity was nigh and "once lost, you're lost forever."
Historian John M. McCardell Jr., vice chancellor at the University of the South (Sewanee) and a Beaufort property owner who worships at St. Helena, said there was no wheezing or fist-pounding from the pulpit. Yet crowds moved forward and fell prostrate as people confessed their wrongs to one another and openly sought forgiveness.
"The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina" calls the revival "a turning point in the history of the region."
Businesses and schools closed. Eleven hard-drinking members of the Whist Club set out on a lark to break up a service, but eight of them left "testifying to the power of Grace," the history book says.
Fifty of the brightest young men in town -- six from a single law firm -- re-routed their lives into the ministry or missions. Among them were Richard Fuller, a founder of the Southern Baptist Convention; Stephen Elliott, the first Anglican bishop of Georgia; and William Jones Boone Sr., the first Anglican missionary bishop of China.
McCardell said Boone taught himself Chinese on the long voyage to China by reading syllable by syllable from a Chinese and English version of the Gospel of Mark. He translated the Book of Common Prayer into Chinese and worked on a Chinese translation of the Bible. A school in China still bears his name.
"It started here," McCardell said in a lecture last year in the historic St. Helena sanctuary. "It started here."
Today's St. Helena minister, Jeffrey Miller, said the church's goal remains to transform the world, one life at a time, telling a story as old as the church of Antioch.
Carl Broggi, whose Community Bible Church is now 30 years old, said it is not uncommon for churches of like mind to work together today as they did in 1831. "We need to see more of that," he said.
More than 100 local pastors have been invited to hear from Evans at a lunch gathering today.
Before he arrived, I asked Evans what he tells people.
"I urge the church to come together to impact the community across all kinds of lives," he said. "In every level of society, we're seeing a downward spiral in homes, relationships, marriages, even churches. People need and want something different."
As for those big shoes of the 19th century, Evans said he can only hope to create the environment for spiritual renewal.
"God is the ultimate architect of that," he said.
- Old, old story the tie that binds 300-year-old church
- Community Bible Church
- Parish Church of St. Helena
- The Urban Alternative