A Sermon on the 25th Anniversary of St. Peter’s Church, Savannah
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
Skidaway Island, Georgia
May 17, 2015
From the Sandlot to the Major Leagues
Let’s play ball!
With these three words, Fr. Paul Hoornstra challenged the packed chapel at Bethesda 25 years ago this month. The group joyously worshipping that week included many who were present to wish this new congregation well. And they all heard the message that St. Peter’s formed as a scrappy sandlot team that would grow up to one day play in the big leagues. He made it clear that he was there as priest to be their coach, but the parishioners were the ones who were going to play. Let’s play ball! The preacher said and the congregation gave a hearty amen.
When I asked Shirley Foresell about the feeling of that first liturgy for St. Peter’s Church she said, “Oh man. It was like a rebirth, inspiring, uplifting, very joyful.”
Fr. Jim Parker, then serving as a deacon assigned to the new congregation by Bishop Shipps, recalls that first service as “a Paul Hoornstra extraordinaire moment”. Paul was larger than life and brought energy to the new venture even in the waning years of his active ministry.
You do well to mark this 25th anniversary—this time of looking back matters. Our reading from the Old Testament includes just this sort of recounting of the story of the people gathered. We’ll get back to the story of St. Peter’s in a moment, but this reading sets the context for today’s celebrations.
The reading is from the Book of Nehemia. This book, and its companion volume of Ezra, tell the story of the people of Israel coming back to their homeland after being held captive in Babylon in the fifth century before Christ. The book offers a first person narrative by Nehemiah, a Jew who is a high official at the Persian court. Learning that the walls of Jerusalem have been destroyed, Nehemiah prays to God to let him do something for his spiritual home. The Persian king hearing his plea appoints Nehemiah as governor of Judah. Nehemiah travels to Jerusalem and rebuilds the walls, and repopulates the city.
Our reading comes as the people have finished the wall. Gathering to rededicate themselves to God, they hear in our reading, the scribe Ezra recounting all that God has done for them. So our Old Testament lesson tells of God calling Abram and giving him the name Abraham, making him the father of many nations. Ezra goes on to recount the crossing of the Red Sea and God giving the Torah on Mount Sinai. As the people in Jerusalem have succeeded in rebuilding the walls, they pause to hear anew the story of their people and woven through it are the many ways God has been faithful.
And so today, I recall how on a Sunday 25 years ago this month, the people of St. Peter’s Church were admonished “Let’s play ball!” and then they went on to form an impressive sandlot team. Recounting the story of this church matters as it reminds us of all God has done so that looking to the future we can see how we can trust God in whatever we face.
I remember Fr. Hoornstra well. I first met him about 17 years ago when he interviewed me on behalf of the Diocese as Bishop Louttit wanted to determine whether I had the gifts to start a new church. Paul told me that when you start a new church, sometimes you have to stand on a chair and wear a funny hat. That, he said was the kind of priest he had been. His assessment was that I was the stand on a chair and wear a funny hat kind of priest, too. I think he meant it as a complement.
This was Paul, but something got planted in the DNA of this church in those earliest of days that has transcended that first liturgy and founding priest. Sarah Anne Hills has been a part since St. Peter’s was a glimmer of an idea and she remembers, “Fr. Paul was perfect for starting a church. He was very welcoming at Bethesda.” She says by watching him, the congregation learned a new kind of hospitality. She adds, “After every Sunday we would descend on every visitor as if it were sorority and fraternity rush week and we wanted them to join.”
Mark Foresell said, “The early days were exciting times, getting a new church started. The fifty of us who signed the official document requesting to form the church really wanted this church.” What was so positive about St. Peter’s founding is that this church did not form by division, but multiplication. The idea wasn’t to get away from some other church. In fact, the first members came from Christ Church, St. John’s, St. Thomas, and elsewhere with the blessing of their own churches as they sought to multiply the Episcopal Church in this area, with a Parish Church for Skidaway Island and the growing community here in and near the Landings. As Shirley Foresell put it, “It was a group of people enthusiastic for making a difference. It is not that people were not happy where they were, but that we wanted to do something special on the island.”
And in these exciting pioneer days of St. Peter’s, Fr. Hornstra’s ideal took hold. He would be the coach, but the parishioners would be the ones playing ball, the ones doing the work of ministry. Bethesda’s Chapel was a gracious first home for St. Peter’s. The influence is still felt in this space where the brick floor mirrors that found at Bethesda. But in time, the church needed more space than the lovely chapel. St. Peter’s moved to the Alee Temple. Fr. Jim Parker the change. He said, “The chapel at Bethesda was very comfortable, the epitome of church.” While, the Alee Temple on Sunday mornings still bore the smells of Saturday night. Jim imagines that the scent of stale beer and cigarette smoke didn’t hurt in hastening the move to a new building.
Sarah Anne Hills recalls the work of the building committee. Everyone agreed they wanted to build a classic Southern church. Mrs. Hills and a couple of others traveled from south of Jacksonville up to Charleston, looking at dozens of Episcopal churches, but a lot of others too of other denominations. They asked everywhere, “What did you learn? What would you do differently?” They worked faithfully to learn how best to create a new church in classic southern style.
The first Rector, Fr. Randy Hollerith said, “When I arrived there, the church had maybe sixty families and held a 1.5 million dollar debt on their building.” But he remembers that everyone knew it would be just fine. He went on to tell me, “The spirit, the welcome and the openness was always impressive to me. They were always reaching out. Even after we moved to Parish status, we had a mission mentality. They always wanted to reach out and welcome people in.”
In fact, that is why he took this call. Randy says, “That spirit. That determination. That is what called to me. They built this Grand Island Gothic Church and they were going to make it successful. They wanted clergy to help them, but they were going to do it. Period. The way the laity were empowered to be the church was wonderful.”
Of course, there is another way to consider St. Peter’s Church. A.L. Addington told me of a time about 15 years ago he went to the Mustard Seed on behalf of St. Peter’s. They were behind the school on 204 going toward the Landings. The church had a rock band and was filled with 20-35 year olds and a style of preaching not found here. The preacher said “God has been good to me and has given me a Jaguar.” The congregation applauded. She told the them that in one of her meditations recently, she got the message that by the end of the year there will be five millionaires in this congregation. A.L. said the congregation went wild with excitement. On the drive home, A.L. reflected that if the Rector of St. Peter’s proclaimed that by the end of the year there will be five millionaires in the church, everyone would begin gnashing their teeth. If they believed the preacher, everyone would wonder what would happen to the stock market. How could their only be five millionaires left in the church within the year? It is all a matter of perspective.
And yet, the means of the members is also part of this church’s story. Bishop Shipps recalls the first meeting with a few lay persons from the church that he said the Diocese did not have the funds to start a new church and he as told “not to worry.”
Fr. Hollerith remembers another way the great gifts of the members came into play. He wanted to push the congregation over the bridge so to speak, to connect St. Peter’s to the larger community. That idea took the form of the three-day antiques event that was all lay led, lay done. In the years since, the Antiques show and now the Trunk Show and the 5k and 10k races have given back tens of thousands dollars to the community. Every dollar raised goes back to support work in the community. Through these funds raised and in hosting families and providing leaders for the group, St. Peter’s commitment to Interfaith Hospitality Network has built a bridge to many families in need. This congregation has been and continues to be a resource for its community and the Diocese, a gift to others.
Mother Leslie Hague speaks lovingly of her time serving here and the spirit of the congregation, which always had a “We can do it!” attitude about everything. All along the way, the church grew, but stayed true to itself. Mother Leslie says that from meeting at Bethesda, to Alee Temple, to the current church, there was never a time of “We are done.” In a graceful way, St. Peter’s kept moving forward. Leslie says the motto “Moving Forward in Faith” is not simply a nice saying; moving forward in faith offers a perfect explanation of where St. Peter’s remained through all that time.
Fr. Sam Buice remembers being excited about the call to St. Peter’s as “God clearly had a hand in it, everyone involved knew it…and so something that I did not think would happen did.” Once here, across 13 years he says he found again and again, amazingly gifted and talented people…willing to give of their time and use their gifts and talents to build God’s church. He added, “These people are some of the most generous I have ever been around.”
Many changes have indeed come. Today with its beautiful organ, an unmatched musician and choir, many on the island know this church for its music. But this has not been different in kind from worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness at Bethesda, as we experience by singing the same hymns today as on May 6, 1990. This shows how the enviable music program is just St. Peter’s having come to be more fully itself. The sand lot team Fr. Hoornstra coached ended up building its own stadium and making it into the big leagues.
Sarah Anne Hills recalls the spirit of the first group that gathered in a living room to discuss a new Episcopal Church was not that they would try. She says emphatically, “We just expected to do it.” Fr. Hollerith recalls the golf carts that would come rolling up whenever anything was needed, filled with people with a can do attitude. Fr. Sam Buice says, “Whenever we felt called to a task, the right people with the right gifts emerged.”
Looking back over the past 25 years, we see a miracle that is so like God. The Lord who made the heavens and the earth did not rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. God spoke to the heart of Nehemiah, who talked to the king, and then gathered others around him. God did not snap divine fingers and make this fine classic southern church appear on the edge of the Landings. God spoke to the hearts of Ron and Mary Stephens, George and Sarah Anne Hills, Clark and Muriel Fuller, and many others listed in your bulletin and others unnamed.
I promise you, there were many blistered hands and sore-muscled bodies among those listening to the scribe Ezra read off all God had done for the people of Israel. And there are many here today who will be much too gracious to name all the time, money, and energy they have expended to the glory of God in this place.
But the real gift of an anniversary is not looking back with pride. The real gift is to look forward in faith. Just as St. Peter’s has been looking forward in faith for a quarter century. Looking back, we see a miraculous journey with thousands of people touched by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Looking forward we know God will do more than we can ask for or imagine.
This is true in our own lives as well. Think back across your life and with the gift of hindsight, if you are honest with yourself, you will see the fingerprints of God on your life, even in the darkest hours. How do I know this about you? I don’t. I know God. God is faithful, and true. As a priest of 15 years, I have found this a rule—even an atheist can point to occurrences that felt miraculous and even times when they felt the presence of the holy we know to be God. As Jesus told his disciples, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” The Holy Spirit does show up. This we know.
So while I don’t know what you are facing this week or month or in the years ahead. I do know that we each face times when we wonder if God is present. Times when we feel alone, abandoned. The gift then of a day like today is that when we look back to all God has done for this church; each of us can also recall our own lives and God’s presence over the years. We see clearly from the miracles of the past that God has not brought us this far to leave us.
We can thus inspired move forward in faith, not with blind trust but a deep hope born out of experience. God is with us. So don’t just sit in the stands, “Let’s play ball!”