When Jason Varnadore was asked to describe his congregation’s feelings about having to relinquish their building, he had two words: grief and relief.
“I think if you’d asked about a month ago, we were really hurting,” he says, “but this month we’re feeling better. We’re starting to be able to envision a future again, to be able to imagine new possibilities.”
“Different people in our church have grieved in different ways,” he says. “Some were really angry on the front end and have just shown up now and been really strong. Others were really strong on the front end and are struggling now.”
“It’s also been painful for some of our people to feel like the town doesn’t understand what’s going on,” he says.
Social Media posed a challenge with posts appearing that looked as though St. David’s was returning to the Episcopal Church. “From a legal standpoint, that’s simply not true,” he says. “The Market Street building is returning, but the church itself, the congregation of St. David’s, is not. We remain with the ACNA. We’re just going to a different location.”
“The grieving process is important,” he says. “But from a social media standpoint, we are very careful about what we put in writing.” He encouraged his parishioners not to retaliate or engage in bitter exchanges on social media.
“One of the more difficult things is the spiritual discipline of not having to defend yourself,” he says. “We believe the Lord justifies us. We don’t have to walk around justifying ourselves. We simply need to obey Him and allow Him – whether that’s now or later – to do that. He’s the one who vindicates us.”
Some relief has come from releasing the financial burden of maintaining an historic building and running a day school. “The rent we’re paying now is cheaper than the mortgage-free maintenance bill we paid on our building every month,” says Varnadore.
Though their commitment to the day school was strong, running a 52-year-old entity on a day-to-day basis took its toll. “Now we’re finally able to go from a season of maintenance to mission.”
An unexpected blessing has come through the experience. “Other churches in our community have joyfully come to our aid,” he says. “Wesley United Methodist Church, an historically African American church, generously signed over a lease to let us use their property. The PCA minister in town said, ‘If you need any office space, you let me know. You can have it.’ So, we have really nice offices over at Faith Presbyterian in town. The Baptist church said, ‘Let us know what we can do.’ It’s been a beautiful thing to see. Other congregations care about us, and our people feel loved. I think people really sense that this is the Lord’s movement.”
The support from other clergy and parishioners from around the Diocese have made an impact, as well. The Diocese holds a weekly Zoom call where rectors, whose congregations faced eviction, can connect, voice their concerns and share their hopes and plans. “I love those weekly calls,” says Varnadore. “I love hearing from other rectors and seeing how they’re all handling it, how supportive everyone is of each other. The camaraderie between clergy has been really good. And frankly, I’ve gotten to know a lot more clergy because of this lawsuit than I would have otherwise. It’s bound us together in very deep and personal ways.”
When St. David’s held their last service in the historic building July 31 a number of people from around the Diocese showed up to support them. “We had people from all over our Deanery this past week come to support us,” he says. “Lots of clergy were here.”
The week before that service they held a symbolic procession, marching through town from their historic building to the church they are now leasing a few blocks away. The idea for the march came from church member Gayle Davis. “You should use Gayle’s name because she’s the best person in the whole world,” says Varnadore. “Gayle is the matriarch of our church, and we all adore her. If Gayle isn’t for it, you might as well just not do it because she hears directly from the Lord. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Davis pointed out that, back in the early 1900’s when the church moved from its original building (built in 1768 and now owned by the historical society) to the current one, the entire congregation marched through town from the old building to the new.
St. David’s reenacted that procession this past July to signify their move to a new location and a new season. “After the service and our potluck supper, we rounded everybody up and marched about 50 people through Cheraw, blocking traffic as we went,” he says. “Then we went into our new sanctuary where we spent time praying as a congregation and sang the doxology.”
“I think that we have to be very careful not to say, ‘Well, the church is the people, not the building.’ I agree with that. That’s very true,” says Varnadore. “But we’re spatial creatures. We live in bodies. We inhabit places. And these places have meanings. There are symbols of faithfulness all over that old church, and we should grieve it and mourn it. And yet we’re able to say, ‘we count it all as loss if we don’t abide in Christ.’ And so, there’s a real sense of abiding in Christ rather than just abiding in our historic building.”
“God must have something strangely special in store for us,” says Varnadore. “This has lit a fire under our people. They’re beginning to say, ‘All right, who are we going to be? What is our goal here? Why are we doing any of this at all? Why do we want to be Anglicans in Cheraw, South Carolina?’ We don’t have to duplicate what we just left. We can think afresh about doing evangelistic ministries that gather people to worship the risen Lord and make sure we’re intentional about inviting our neighbors!”
By Joy Hunter, Editor