More from the series
Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches
At least 97 S.C. churches have closed since 2011. Other churches are dying slow deaths, losing thousands of members. What’s happening to the Bible Belt?
It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday, and six people sit in the pews at the Church of the Epiphany in Spartanburg.
The church service should be starting. But Therlon Joyner, the sole member of the Episcopal church’s choir and its organ player, waits a minute. Perhaps a few more people will trickle in, he thinks.
He waits another few minutes, and then a couple more. Nobody else arrives.
So Joyner, 83, takes his seat on the organ’s bench and starts playing the opening hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.”
“The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her lord,” he sings, as a few voices from the pews join him in quiet, low tones.
Fifty years ago, Joyner directed the church’s nine-member choir, made up of high school students. Each Sunday, the pews were packed with about 50 people — families, children and older congregants — who joyfully sang along.
Today, the Church of the Epiphany is one of South Carolina’s smallest churches. Sunday attendance averaged 20 people last year, according to data from The Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina. That’s a generous accounting, members say.
Fears are growing that the church could be shuttered.
Joyner alone leads the service’s music these days. No choir. No high school students.
Six people in the pews is typical — including Brenda Wood, 69, in a pink straw hat; Debbie Walters Hall Wofford, 83, dressed in her sunshine-yellow dress, and Marie Moore, 80, whose son, Ibrahim, helps her in and out of her wheelchair.
The Rev. Charlotte Waldrop, a retired priest, drove down from Asheville, North Carolina, to conduct the service this Sunday.
That’s not unusual either. Without a permanent priest since May, the church has seen a different substitute every Sunday.
“I knew (the congregation) would be small,” Waldrop said. “But frankly ... it was much smaller than I thought it would be.”
Many S.C. churches of various denominations are closing.
The Southern Baptist convention lost nearly 50 churches statewide from 2007 to 2017, according to convention data. Twenty-one Presbyterian churches closed from 2012 to 2016. And South Carolina Lutherans lost 11 churches from 2006 to 2016.
Although the upper Episcopal diocese has not closed any churches over the past 20 years, one church in the lower Episcopal diocese closed in 2013.
It wasn’t always like this.
Joyner moved to Spartanburg, a segregated textile town, in 1957 — fresh out of college and ready to start a job as a music teacher.
He began playing the organ for the Church of the Epiphany, a well-known church on Liberty Street, one of the busiest roads on the bustling south side of Spartanburg.
Founded a few decades after the Civil War, the church ran a popular kindergarten program, where parishioners and nonparishioners alike enrolled their children.
The priest, who came to South Carolina from Barbados, insisted that the church run in the matter of “High Mass” — in the Anglican church, that meant using incense and Sanctus bells during ceremonies.
The congregation was never huge — the parish used to have around 50 members, remembers Joyner — but it was lively. Family-friendly. Flourishing.
Although Epiphany was far from the mega-churches of today, it was a community establishment.
Every December, neighborhood children gathered to decorate the church’s Christmas tree out front. It didn’t matter whether the kids were Episcopal or not. Every child received a Christmas gift.
There were also youth groups, prayer groups, Sunday school classes and church-run bazaars.
Joyner left the church in 1963, moving to Connecticut to teach at a nonsegregated school.
When he returned to Spartanburg in the 1990s, he came back to a different church.
No kindergarten. Few children. No Sunday school.
The kindergarten school building had been torn down. A one-story red brick building had replaced it, housing a small communion hall and a few offices.
As the years passed, the number of parishioners kept dwindling.
Until Sundays were like this one in July, when six congregation members sat in the pews, including a seventh who arrived halfway through the service.
As on every Sunday, the priest fed Joyner a communion wafer as he played the organ. He was the sole musician, after all; if he stood up to accept communion, the music would stop.
Things began to change long before Joyner’s return to Spartanburg.
Residents saw their textile manufacturing jobs moved overseas.
The Southside community changed, too. Liberty Street was cut off and renamed, making it difficult to access. Businesses moved away, or closed. Churchgoers got older.
Thirty-six year old Tyrone Normand — the youngest congregant in attendance on a recent Sunday — remembers his friends who grew up with him at Epiphany. Some moved away after high school and never returned. Some opted to go to bigger, flashier churches in town. Others simply stopped attending church.
Older adults passed away. Middle-aged adults died too soon.
Church member Debbie Walters Hall Wofford remembers congregants who died from diseases, including cancer, in their 40s or 50s. Moore had five children, three of whom died from illnesses during the past couple of decades.
Now, only a few parishioners are left standing.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Maybe.
Where does the church go from here?
Jane Span, 80, who has attended Church of the Epiphany since she was 25, doesn’t have much hope for her beloved church.
“We just don’t have people rushing to join the Episcopal Church,” Span said.
And without a sizable number of congregants, running the church can be expensive, she said. The church needs to be maintained. Except for the priest, everyone who works at the church is a volunteer.
She also thinks Plus, she suspects that not as many African-American families have continued to raise their families in the Episcopal faith.
“I was born in the church,” Span said. “And I think it makes a difference.”
Keeping the church’s history alive is also difficult.
In July, someone broke through the communion hall’s window and stole a donated TV meant to help reestablish Sunday school classes for kids, along with crucifixes from the wall, vases, a microwave — and most heart-wrenching, church documents from the 1940s and 1950s.
Wofford, who serves as the church treasurer, arrived to find the drawers emptied, with some records stolen and others sprawled across the floor.
“I don’t know what happened,” Wofford said. “But I don’t think the church will be closed. That’s my belief.”
Normand believes the church can be saved by reaching out to youth.
His father organizes sports field days for kids through the church. They even brought back the Christmas tree tradition last year, when about 15 kids participated in the festivities. Normand himself has an infant daughter whom he plans on raising at Epiphany.
“If you don’t rejuvenate the church with young people, it will die,” he said.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, said d’Rue Hazel, canon for development and administration for the Upper Diocese.
The Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina has not closed a church in the 20 years she’s worked there.
“If the congregation is doing the work of Jesus, then we support that,” she said.
For Joyner’s part, he neither expects a doomsday scenario, nor a sudden resurgence.
“I hope we’re going to be able to survive,” he said. “If we don’t get young people in there, I don’t know what will happen.”