GOLFPORT, Fla. – Half a century ago, Yvonne Johnson came to Gulfport to build a house with her husband. Eventually, to her surprise, she helped build a church.
“This became my home,” the 93-year-old said as he sat in the foyer of Gulfport Presbyterian Church on Sunday.
This morning there was no sign of the spare Bibles, the crockpots, or the unused cans of decaf that had littered the hallway earlier this week. The rubble from 75 years of Sunday was removed just in time.
The church was clean and welcoming: the same refreshments—coffee, pink and white biscuits, granola bars—greeted attendees as always at the back of the chapel.
Except this time, as Johnson approached the lectern, propped up on her walking frame, about 50 people from the pews looked back at her. Light from the stained-glass windows glittered on their faces. Some had gone as far as Orlando.
“If we had that many people every Sunday, we wouldn’t be closing,” she said with a warm, mischievous smile. Gulfport Presbyterian Church’s final service was in progress.
One of the city’s oldest religious institutions, its membership had dwindled to just 19 by the time it closed.
The church joins a number of places of worship across the United States that have been closed as attendance dwindles and fewer young people participate in organized religions and increasingly identify as spiritual but not religious.
“If we lost the youth, we never got them back,” said Johnson, the church’s senior member. “When older members died, they were not replaced.”
The service progressed as Rev. Micki Robinson, 66, longtime pastor of the church before retiring last year, played a lilting tune on her honey-colored harp.
She well remembers presenting the harp at the First Friday Art Walks in downtown Gulfport and trying to invite new members.
“I just played so people knew we existed,” said Robinson. “But the community has changed and the world has changed. People would come in and see old people – they didn’t realize how young they were in their attitude.”
The church has tried other recruitment strategies over the years, including “Who Let The Dogs In” services, where participants could bring their pets.
Sunflower Private School, an elementary school that rents part of the building and is now trying to buy the property, started as Ave Mary to bring more young children back into the community, Johnson said.
“But the families already had their own churches,” she said.
“There is a time for everything,” read Marsha Rydberg from the book Ecclesiastes. “A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… a time to seek and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away.”
Over the years, Gulfport Presbyterian provided disaster relief during hurricanes, helped farm workers in the fields, and put on at least one performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.
For Theresa McLean, 71, it was an oasis during the worst moments of puberty.
“I wasn’t popular in high school,” McLean said in a side note to Bob Ponder, 72, the newest member of the Church in December. “I was in the youth group here, and that got me through.”
“The Church was a family then,” Ponder said.
“It was incredible in the ’60s and ’70s,” McLean’s brother Jim Johnson, 75, chimed in wistfully.
Membership of the youth began to decline in the 1970s, members of Gulfport Presbyterians recall.
As they got older, pursued careers, and had children of their own, they either didn’t come back, followed the wave of “contemporary” churches that were attracting young adults, or abandoned the faith altogether. Overall membership suffered from a slow drop that finally became unsustainable last year.
“You can’t have a church without money and people,” Johnson said. The church voted to close its doors in September.
Still, some members will find a way to stay in the community together. Several said they would meet next week to try Lakeview Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg.
In a pew further back, Kiki Kremer, 58, wiped her eyes during the service.
“I’ve lost four siblings in the last few years,” she said. “People at this church — they used to call me and call me to report me. So it was an honor to be a part of this community.”
Kremer was a Church Sunday School teacher for 30 years, sitting next to her four remaining students, a quartet of siblings who attended school with their great-grandmother.
One of them, an almond-eyed girl with an open face, donned a sparkling silver crown for the occasion. At 12, Nevaeh Wallace is the youngest member of the Church.
“If there were more children, it would be better,” she said. “Not many of my friends go to church at all. There’s only about three of them that do that.”
Rev. William Cowfer took the pulpit to deliver the final sermon of the Gulfport Presbyterian Church.
“When Jesus descended, the work of the disciples was not done—it was just beginning,” Cowfer said. “While we have mixed feelings about not being able to continue here as a church, the church that has been here all these years is scattered across the world.
“They teach in schools. treat you. They’re raising children and grandchildren,” he added. “So we can repeat the words of Mary: I have seen the Lord.”
The Reverend closed his message. The communion began when the pianist played Here, There and Everywhere by the Beatles. The flock of Gulfport Presbyterians shuffled through the pews one last time.
After that, the remaining members lingered—stayed a little too long, ate one refreshment too many, as any good service does.
Throughout, Johnson remained practical, composed, and grateful. She hopes the church will be remembered for its mission statement: live by faith and be known by love.
“It’s still my home,” she said. “I am ready to come back next Sunday. But that’s it.”
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