St. Stephen United Methodist Church of Orangeburg is set to celebrate 150 years of service to God and community with an upcoming anniversary celebration.
Located at 4500 North Road, the church will have as part of its celebration a series of special services to be held Tuesday through Thursday, Oct. 15-17. The church will culminate its 150th anniversary recognition with Sunday services on Oct. 20, with the Rev. Mack McClam, pastor of Trinity UMC in Orangeburg, serving as featured speaker during the 3 p.m. service.
The young adult ministry will have a service featuring a speaker and singing on Tuesday. Wednesday’s service will include a talent showcase from among various church members, while the church’s men and male chorus will have a gospel sing-out on Thursday.
Member JoAnn Abram said, “Oct. 20 is when we really go into our celebration. We’ll have a guest speaker and will be acknowledging some of super seniors age 80 and above. But we’ll also have different age levels participating on this program.”
The anniversary is being held under the theme “150 Years: Growing Stronger, Growing Deeper, Reaching Higher.”
Like many other African-American churches, the church began as a brush harbor.
The church was organized in 1869. The Rev. Lemuel Arthur was then the pastor of the Orangeburg Circuit which included St. Stephen, Mt. Nebo, St. John and Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal churches. Bishop John Dickson served as bishop during that time.
Arthur served for two years before being replaced by the Rev. R.F. Blakely in 1878. During this period, St. Stephen held its church meeting under the brush harbor before a small wooden building was erected in 1879 with a sand floor and no bathrooms.
The small schoolhouse built on the property served the children in the Bull Swamp Road area, with some having to walk four to five miles each day to get there. The schoolhouse remained standing until the present church was built nearly 100 years later.
It was around 1885 when another wooden church was erected with large windows, a high steeple and indoor bathroom. On June 16, 1951, during the pastorate of the Rev. Fulton Edwards, an acre of land adjacent to the church was purchased. Seeing the need for a new church, a dedicated committee went to work before a new modern brick edifice was completed in 1976.
With a total membership of approximately 200, the church is now led by the Rev. Frank James.
James said he is proud of the church’s growth over the years.
“You experience growth in many ways: membership, ministry, missions. Being a pastor, I am excited about all of it because the physical growth, membership growth is a sign of people giving their life to Christ,” James said.
“Jesus is the church and the more people come in and give their life to Christ, they become members of the kingdom church, and that’s Jesus Christ. So that’s what I’m excited about, just seeing folks’ lives transition. I just love to do ministry. I’ve been with the conference for 27 years, but I’ve going into my 10th year at this church,” he said.
Member Shelton Sistrunk said, “What kept the church so long is that it was a family-oriented church. It was the Hooks, the Sistrunks, the Macks, the Hiblers ….”
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Member Janelle Mitchell said St. Stephen is no longer part of a circuit which included two other churches, but operates on its own as a station church. She said that is also a testament to the church’s longevity and ability to stay together.
“That’s really a leap of faith. We’re very proud of that. We wanted to stand on our own and be a force in our community. So we went station in 2015 and are really celebrating a lot more than just 150 years. Out of all those years, we finally are able to stand on our own. So that’s another reason why we’re still together, too, because we saw the vision and the people here had the vision to want to have that idea of being a station church,” she said.
Mitchell said the church has a strong Wednesday night Bible study and a variety of ministries, including several community outreach ministries and age-level programs. The church also operates The Knowledge House, an after-school program.
“We actually have certified teachers and also tutors from Claflin University and the community to come and assist us with an after-school program. It’s only twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays and is in its third year,” she said.
“We have a Gold Star Ministry, when all the members of the church adopt a senior member and acknowledge them throughout the year. Then twice a year, they will have a program in which they will actually be honored.”
Member Ruthel Johnson, 86, is one of those senior members whose roots run deep in the church.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth because I grew up in this church. My mother was a member of this church, my grandparents. My grandfather was a minister, I had an uncle who was a minister. I actually had two uncles who were ministers who grew up in this church,” Johnson said.
Abram said the church has a strong song ministry, with the male chorus and children’s, senior, gospel and inspirational choirs being among those that share their talent with the church.
Member Pearl Thompson has worked with the children’s ministry for more than 30 years, performing everything from mime to puppetry with the youth.
“I’m very proud of them. We’re trying to find a way to kind of like get more of them back involved in what we do,” Thompson said.
Dajon Holmes, 17, a lead singer of the six-member contemporary gospel group, Purpose, said he has grown personally as a member of the church.
“I used to be shy. I learn the word, and I love the singing and the ministries. They give away free clothes, have fish fries. I love it. And we also do a ministry for the kids that are like in the street. We make music for the kids and Purpose has a CD out,” Holmes said.
Chandler Jones, a teen who also attends the church, said, “St. Stephen has taught me a lot spiritually. It’s taught me the righteous way to live life. I am a JROTC cadet, and it’s taught m e to be a respectful and obedient young man.”
James said, “There is one ministry that I think is very profound, and it’s called The Church Reaching the Unchurched. We have t-shirts and the ministry is very effective. We wear our t-shirts to church, especially on fifth Sundays, and we also wear them in the community. This is a way to invite people to come worship with you.”
Mitchell said, “We actually went out into the neighborhood and knocked on doors and left fliers. You have to keep those things going. Those are ways that I see our church can be kept another 150 years. You gotta go outside the walls.”
Becoming more inclusive and growing membership are among the church’s future goals, with a new sanctuary also among the church’s long-term goals.
“It is still in the discussion stage; however, we are very serious about building. We definitely need space for ministry. For the most part, everyone is on board. We have what we call the study committee. We sat down and we kind of studied what we would need as far as classrooms, multipurpose room and etc. to make everything feasible for the different age-level ministries,” James said.
“The committee kind of gave us an idea of what we need for the new church, and it’s looking great. As a matter of fact, we’re in the process of partially cleaning off the area in front of the church. So as we go along, we’re in prayer. It is not a task that takes place overnight,” he said.
Until then, he said the loving church is committed to working together to foster its evolving gospel ministry.
“You know what makes a strong church? When you have people working together. I must say we have that here at St. Stephen. What I love about them is that if something doesn’t go in our favor, we are resilient people. We know how to come back and continue speaking and loving each other. That’s the church,” James said. “I thank God for everyone here because we have that loving spirit and know how to minister to each other.”