Jeremiah 29:7 “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” and Proverbs 11:10 “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices…”
With these verses, the Lord began to stir the hearts of the leaders and several members that we should not settle into ministry on James Island. Our church began in the Terrace Theater on James Island as Island Community Church, and by 2005 we were happily meeting for worship in the beautiful new Lowcountry Senior Center also on James Island. However, as we looked at the kind of family God had brought together and the gifts and interests He had given us, it made sense for us to be downtown. We had many college and medical school students and were already actively involved with the International Student Program at the Medical University. We were also partnering with downtown churches for justice and mercy outreach ministries.
Many people attempted to dissuade us from the move—including several downtown pastors—believing that a move downtown would “kill our church.” We were not dissuaded. We remained confident in the Lord’s call, and began to look for opportunities to relocate to downtown. In the following year and a half, we negotiated with five downtown churches, who because of their declining memberships and high maintenance expenses, were interested in sharing space with us. After some brief and other very long negotiations, each church decided that sharing space would not work out well for them. We were disappointed with each rejection, but remained confident in our calling.
2006 – A New Possibility
In August of 2006, we received word that St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church was merging with another Lutheran church on Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley and would be vacating their building. This possibility excited us because this space could be ours full time without the need to coordinate scheduling with another church. We were the first to contact the leadership at St. Andrew’s about renting their space. Though other churches and organizations competed for the buildings, St. Andrew’s decided to work with us. After very friendly negotiations were completed, a lease was drawn up and on December 10, 2006, we moved into 43 Wentworth St. and became Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
December 2006—June 2012 – A Never-Settled Feeling
Our lease allowed us use of the buildings for three years, but we always knew they were simultaneously on the market—with an asking price of $8.1 million! That was a price we could not and would not ever pay. Though we moved in and enjoyed the buildings and all the ministry opportunities we had hoped for they would provide for us and more, we never really “unpacked.” We continued to look for other downtown space that could house us when 43 Wentworth St. sold. Three years went by quickly, but the buildings did not sell, so we were allowed to rent month by month. Four years went by, then five years, then five-and-a-half years, and still the buildings still did not sell. The price dropped to $6.1 million, then to $5.4 million, and finally to $4.3 million, but still no one seemed interested in purchasing them. We began to believe that the buildings might never sell and we could stay forever.
June 2012 – The Other Shoe Drops
In June of 2012, the news came that we hoped would never come. A wealthy local business person negotiated the unbelievably low price of $1.6 million to purchase the buildings. The prospective buyer intended to gut the sanctuary and turn it into a private, 5-bedroom residence and convert the fellowship hall into condominiums and office space. We were, of course, completely disheartened (not for ourselves for we knew the Lord would provide for us) but for the message that the sale of the buildings for this purpose would send to the city: Charleston is post-Christian and churches should just be converted for other uses.
June 2012 – The Forgotten Fine-Print
The church that owned the building seemed to have forgotten and so did not inform the potential buyer that per the lease, Redeemer held the right of first refusal on the property. This right allowed us to step in and take the negotiated price as our purchase price. That figure was, of course, more money than we had or could borrow, but it was significantly less than the owners’ firm price of $4.3 million. We reasoned that we could not buy property and build—even an inexpensive building for that amount, so in faith we decided to exercise our right. The problem was that we only had 30 days to come up with the money.
July 2012 – The Drama Begins
In order to convert the buildings to the intended use, the prospective buyer needed the city zoning board to grant a variance. The prospective buyer claimed a “hardship” existed with the current zoning. In this hurdle, we saw hope. We knew that state law did not allow for a “hardship” claim for property one did not own and the buyer did not yet own the buildings. So, confident that the law was on our side, we went to the zoning board to make our case against allowing the zoning change. We believed that if the variance was not granted, the other buyer would walk away from the deal and allow us more time to raise money. We were both shocked and suspicious (and a little unsure of what the Lord was doing) when the zoning board granted the variance with practically no debate. Having won the variance, we knew there was little to prevent the buyer from moving forward with the purchase and gutting of our buildings.
July 2012 – A Helper from Heaven
Help came to us in the form of a member of the city council who became aware of our situation. Believing the zoning board had made the wrong decision, he began the process of having the city council override the zoning board’s decision. Since the battle between Redeemer and the very influential business person was shaping up to be what then-mayor Joe Riley called a “blood bath at city council,” the mayor stepped in to encourage negotiations between our church, the business person, and church that owned the property. An agreement was reached that would give us 90 days to raise the money to purchase the buildings.
July 2012—October 2012 – Beat the Clock
We immediately began seeking advice from capital campaign consultants. We got the same response from each of them, “You can’t raise that amount of money in that much time.” By that they meant that traditional capital campaign strategies had much longer time-frames. Thankfully, the Lord is not bound by “traditional capital campaign strategies.” A generous private donor agreed to lend us $1,000,000 under very generous terms. That loan left us with $600,000 to raise. Once again the mayor came to our aid. He held press conferences from our sanctuary and encouraged the community to join together to save our buildings so that Charleston would not be a city of “used-to-be’s.” In addition, we hosted a reception for the mayor to which he invited potential donors. The mayor’s office also produced “Save the Church” bumper stickers to distribute around the city, and we made promotional videos. During the course of those 90 days, editorials and multiple letters to the editor appeared in the Post & Courier supporting our cause. These spurred us on. Generous gifts and 3-year pledge commitments from our members and friends, gifts from around the country from former members of St. Andrew’s church, and contributions made to the Charleston Preservation Society on our behalf moved us toward our goal, but the night before the noon deadline we were still $180,000 short. Overnight more than $20,000 came in from online donations, plus churches around South Carolina called to give thousands more. Since the Lord intended for us to stay at 43 Wentworth St., two hours before our deadline we received a gift for $150,000 putting us over our goal!
October 2012 to present – God’s Continued Provision
After the purchase of the buildings, the Lord continued to provide for us in unexpected ways. In early 2013 the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, because they had outgrown their space, approached us about the possibility of renting part of our Fellowship Hall. Normally this would have required a visit to the zoning board to ask for a zoning change—something they are usually hesitant to give. But in the confusion of negotiations and fundraising, the city council never got around to voting to overturn the zoning board’s decision to grant the variance. So we were able to welcome the Land Trust with open arms. The Lord used what we thought was evil for good! Rent from the Land Trust has been a tremendous blessing in helping us meet our mortgage each month.
The Future – Continued Gospel Presence
We are confident the Lord has placed us 43 Wentworth St. to be a blessing to this city. We are equally confident that the Lord will provide for our financial needs so that we are free to do what we long to do: be a gospel presence actively ministering to the downtown Charleston community.