By TIM BULLARD
BURGESS Before midnight struck Jan. 21 deep in the heart of the Burgess community of Horry County, foot-stompin’ gospel music thumped in the darkness at St. James United Methodist Church for a Church Unity Prayer Service.
The Burgess Community Choir opened the service, which had the theme “God will dwell with them . . . they will be God’s people,” and brought together over a dozen congregations. Tambourines shook and a woman struck a cowbell with fervor as harmony arose stirring the souls of some Christians who had never before broken the plane of a black church door.
The choir was directed by Minister Dareen Alston, who sang along, his brow drenched in beads of perspiration as a gas heater warmed the sanctuary.
Local pastors took the stage in a battle of the preachers, much like the scene in the recent motion picture “The Apostle.”
“We already have been illuminated,” announced the Rev. Anna Miller of St. James Methodist Church. “It’s time to worship the Lord.”
Members of St. Michael Catholic Church made up the majority of this Thursday night congregation of mixed color.
After the first stanza of Fanny J. Crosby’s “I Am Thine, O Lord,” Miller stopped the audience from singing. There was an uneasy silence. “I think we can do a little bit better than that,” said Miller, as people laughed.
Sister Isabel Haughey of St. Michael’s Church gave a scripture reading from Revelations 21:1-7.
The Rev. Everett Plowden of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church read from John 1:1,14, and then came time for Msgr. Thomas R. Duffy of St. Michael’s to speak with a meditation, “God Is With Us.”
“I want to thank you for sharing my remarks,” Msgr. Duffy said. “The Lord is our salvation. The Lord is our life. But we’ve got a problem. We don’t act like it.”
People “nit-pick,” finding fault, he said. “That ain’t the way it’s supposed to be.” Neighbors fail to see each other as brother and sister, Msgr. Duffy noted, and only view each other as different.
“Tonight it’s good for us to be here because, hopefully, we’ll look beyond that. There’s no time to nit-pick tonight. We’ll do it tomorrow,” he said as laughter arose from the congregation. “Do you know why we can’t love other people? It’s because we are scared.”
All fear vanished as Rev. Miller began, saying “Our hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ is going to be done two different ways. We’re going to do ‘Amazing Grace’ in the traditional version, then we’re going to do the African refrain so all of you hold on to your seats.”
The second version included a soaring lead solo by Alston, surrounded by the spiritual inflections of harmonizing Christians.
Deacon James Small of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church spoke from John 17:20-21, and the Rev. Walker Vaught of St. Peter gave a meditation on “He is our God, and we are His children.”
“The first thing we’ve got to do is to unify here, to get to where we are going,” Vaught said. “God sees no color. God sees no denomination. When you get to the Pearly Gates, they’re not going to ask whether or not you went to a Catholic church or a Baptist church. It won’t even be in the conversation. He’s going to say, ‘Did you believe in my son Jesus?'”
“Come on!” a woman exclaimed. “Go ahead and say it!”
After the hymn “We’ll Understand It Better,” the Rev. Willie Rutledge of True Deliverance spoke from Revelations 21:4-5, and the Rev. Gary Loadholdt of Shepherd of the Sea Lutheran Church gave a meditation on “The New Jerusalem.”