They call it "the miracle church."

Congregations cross boundaries to join 'church-raising'
January 31, 2004

To some that means the building itself, erected after decades of frustrated effort by a small African-American congregation.

To some it means the strange way donated materials, furnishings, expertise and labor all seemed to arrive right on cue.

To others it means the way a dozen congregations, never united before, crossed racial and economic boundaries to work together.

To everyone, the hands-on labor of building St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Greenville, S.C., for and with its parishioners has meant new friendships and enriched lives.

"It was God's timing," says parishioner Ann Marie Jones, one year after the church's dedication. "We'd been trying to build for years and years ... saving for years and years."

The 31-family congregation now gathers every week in a brand-new, carpenter gothic church. Painted in striking shades of mauve and merlot, the sanctuary feels surprisingly intimate, its soft color punctuated by dark-stained rafters that soar 42 feet above the pale, red oak floor.

For many it's a dream long deferred.

A modest mission

First established in 1914 as a mission church, St. Philip's was one of seven congregations founded for African-Americans in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. For the last four decades, parishioners have met in a one-story, brick-clad, cinder block building on the outskirts of Greenville. The modest structure served as both sanctuary and function hall and looked more like a warehouse than a place of worship.

The congregation dreamed of building "a real church." Raising money didn't come easily. Each generation tried, but there never seemed to be enough. Then two events coincided to change St. Philip's future forever: The bishop hired a new vicar, and the diocese formed the Reedy River Convocation.

The vicar, Beth Ely, believed communities should help build churches. Feisty and determined, she envisioned hands-on volunteers creating something beautiful just like in earlier days of barn-raisings. She wasn't quiet about her idea of a Habitat-for- Humanity-model church.

So, when the diocese formed new convocations and the 12 churches of Reedy River started casting about for projects, Ely's idea was a natural. Church leaders wanted something to work on jointly that would draw the congregations into closer relationship. The idea of a "church-raising" won enthusiastic endorsement.

Construction began on the $355,000 church in July 2002 after months of preparation, grant-seeking and fund raising. Volunteers arrived at the site to pound nails, pour concrete, paint, polish and place tiles. They came from every church in the convocation and some outside it.

They helped find furnishings and expert help. Sometimes the finds themselves seemed miraculous.

The new church's steep-peaked design came from an architect in Charleston, an Episcopalian known widely for redesigning and rebuilding churches after Hurricane Hugo. Dan Beaman donated all his work.

"I'm a native of Greenville," he says, "so it was a way to give something back to the community."

The solid oak pews came from a Roman Catholic church in New Jersey that a parishioner learned about on the Internet. Senior warden Rogers Stinson's uncle in New Jersey, with a few friends, unbolted them from the floor, loaded them into a cousin's truck and delivered them to Greenville on the way to Florida.

The organ came from St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Columbia, S.C. "When St. Mary's vestry heard about the need of an organ at our sister church in the upstate, it voted to donate the one we had in storage," writes member Donna Rone.

The stunning hanging of Madonna and child behind the altar came from California artist Nancy Chinn. She allowed parishioners to trace her original onto a piece of photographic paper. Volunteers gilded the paper, then cut out the image with Exacto knives to create, in relief, the artist's haunting icon. It appears through the cut-away paper in pale mauve, the color of the rear wall, and looks like an exquisite tapestry.

Word spread like wildfire

As the building progressed and word of the "miracle church" spread, even non-Episcopalians started sending money, says Duncan Ely, Beth's husband. "Donations came from former vicars, from neighbors, even from a man in prison nobody knew."

Organizing "a collection of Episcopalians who'd never met each other" was a miracle in itself, he says.

"Every church in the diocese came together with us and worked in order that we have this," boasts parishioner Donice "Betty" Martin, exaggerating a bit. "Yes, it's a miracle. You see miracles every day just walking around."

'So many boundaries'

"We crossed so many boundaries," says Beth Ely, naming race, class, income. "But also age," she says. "Our elderly parishioners painted just like the kids did. We had people who were quite wealthy and people who really live on a fixed income working side by side. ... We got comfortable with each other in a way that nothing else - no artificial forum, well-intentioned as they are - could have accomplished."

Ely calls the experience the most rewarding in her 15 years of ministry. Her parishioners and the other volunteers seem to feel the same.

"This is the best thing I have ever done in my life," says Margaret Brockman of Christ Church, Greenville. "I have done God's work." Parishioner Annette Smith has, too. "This building means so much to me. ... I'd do anything for this church. If you see me in church, I be crying all the time because I am so rejoiced."

Architect Beaman shares that emotion. "Not to sound corny or anything, but this was one of those times when the Holy Spirit was so evident, you knew you better get on board or get out of the way."

Says parishioner Martha Anne Mial, "I never thought I'd see this day ... the new church, and my hands helped to place the stones."

A time to celebrate

The evening of the dedication, Jan. 30, 2003, hundreds of well-wishers and former volunteers came to celebrate with parishioners of St. Philip's. The bishop, the former bishop, the archdeacons and the mayor of Greenville (an Episcopalian) processed around the outside of the church to the light of Tiki torches and luminaria.

The thurifer swung a censor filled with aromatic herbs, invoking the Holy Spirit as the congregation sang a joyful Zulu song. Then, aided by ringing bells and clashing cymbals, drums, kazoos and maracas, the congregation entered for the Eucharist singing As the Saints Go Marching In.

"I was crying, crying ... it was like we couldn't believe we had actually done it," says Phyllis Webb of the Church of the Redeemer, the coordinator of volunteers.

Former Bishop William A. Beckham, who when archdeacon had saved the perpetually struggling church from being closed, preached at the dedication.

"He was in tears," says Beth Ely. "We all were."

"It was just a tremendous challenge," says parishioner Janice Smith, "and we conquered it ... through faith in God."

She looks around the old church hall where she grew up attending services, Sunday school, parish suppers.

A wide open, brightly painted corridor now links it to the new sanctuary. "This is family. This is home. This is love. Being with them has strengthened my faith."

"You know," says Beth Ely, "it's like the kingdom at work."