Historic downtown Savannah church looks to renovate, rebuild for the future

12/2/2019

By Kara Witherow, Editor

The church is not the building, but the people.

But the building is a home, a place of identity, and a refuge in times of crisis and need.

And now, after 92 years, Asbury United Methodist Church’s building needs help.

Named last month to the Georgia Trust’s 2020 “Places in Peril” list, the historic downtown congregation hopes the exposure will help raise awareness of its plight so they can raise funds for the building’s restoration.

The only African American United Methodist church in Savannah’s historic Victorian District, Asbury UMC celebrated its 150th birthday this summer. The church, which stands on Savannah’s Abercorn Street, dates to 1887 and has served Asbury UMC since 1927.

But leaks and structural issues have rendered much of the 9,555 square foot building unusable, with only the sanctuary able to be used.

Deferred maintenance has caught up with the congregation, says pastor Rev. Debora Shinhoster-Richards, and while the congregation has long been a vital community partner, repairs and restoration would help it minister more fully.

“Right now, we’re very limited on what we can do for ministry and being in community with our neighbors,” Rev. Shinhoster-Richards said. “I think if the congregation could make the restoration a reality, it would mean life for the church, for the congregation. The church would be able to be a part of the community again and once again open its doors to its neighbors, to the community.”

The decision to proceed with repairs and restoration was a year-long process of discernment and prayer, said Asbury UMC member Odessa Lovett.

Faced with the choice of remaining in the historic building, merging with another United Methodist congregation, or seeking a new place of worship, on May 4 the congregation voted to stay, renovate, and preserve the church.

Once the decision to remain and restore was made, the church’s renovation team sought resources and programs to help, which led them to the Georgia Trust.

Designed to raise awareness about Georgia’s significant historic, archaeological, and cultural resources, including buildings, structures, districts, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes, the Places in Peril program seeks to identify and preserve historic sites threatened by demolition, neglect, lack of maintenance, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy.

Lovett hopes money and grants will follow the attention brought to the church by being named to the list.

“The title may give one pause, but the support of the Georgia Trust definitely does not,” said Lovett, chairperson of the renovation team, of the church being named to the Places in Peril list. “Now we have this resource at our disposal and we look forward with great anticipation to working with the Georgia Trust to accomplish our goals.”

Their number one priority is fixing the roof leak, she said. They’ll take repairs one step at a time, but the roof is of utmost importance.

Also important is preserving the church’s history, Lovett said. The congregation felt strongly that the church should be saved, she said, noting that the church is rich with history and significance.

Asbury UMC was instrumental in establishing Haven Home, the only African-American boarding school for girls; was the meeting place for the first African-American Boy Scout troop; and played a leadership role in establishing the Bethlehem Center, now known as the Wesley Community Center.

“We know that the church is the body, but over time, buildings become more than just a place to conduct business. They have a residual energy and memory of all those who came before. And we want the legacy of that, and the legacy of our contribution to the community … to continue,” Lovett said. “That is first and foremost. None of this means anything if we can’t be of importance in our community, if we can’t reach out to our community. We’ve been doing that even while challenged, but we want the opportunity to fix the edifice in which we work so that we can go above and beyond even our own expectations to leave that legacy and do more in our community.

“We see the beauty of this place and want to do everything we can to preserve it.”

Photo by Rebecca Fenwick, the Georgia Trust