GULFPORT, Florida. – Half a century ago, Yvonne Johnson came to Gulfport to build a house with her husband. To her surprise, she ended up helping build a church.
“It’s become my home,” the 93-year-old said Sunday while sitting in the lobby of Gulfport Presbyterian Church.
That morning, there was no trace of the spare Bibles, slow cookers, or unused cans of decaffeinated coffee that littered the hallway earlier that week. The 75-year-old debris of Sundays had been cleared just in time.
The church was clean and welcoming: the same refreshments—coffee, pink and white cookies, granola bars—welcoming attendees at the back of the chapel as always.
Except this time, as Johnson approached the lectern, stabilized by her walker, about 50 people watched her from the pews. The light from the stained glass illuminated their faces. Some had come from as far away as Orlando.
“If we had so many people every Sunday, we wouldn’t close,” she says with a warm, mischievous smile. The last Gulfport Presbyterian Church service was underway.
One of the oldest religious institutions in the city, its membership was down to just 19 by the time it closed.
The church joins a swathe of places of worship across the United States that have closed as attendance dwindles and fewer young people participate in organized religion, increasingly identifying as spiritual but not religious.
“When we lost the young people, we never got them back,” said Johnson, the church’s most senior member. “As the older members passed away, they were not replaced.”
The service moved forward as Reverend Micki Robinson, 66, a longtime pastor of the church before retiring last year, played a singsong piece on her honey-colored harp.
She still remembers when she presented the harp at the First Friday Art Walks in downtown Gulfport, trying to invite new members.
“I would just play so people know we exist,” Robinson said. “But the community has changed and the world has changed. People came in and they saw old people – they didn’t realize how young they were.
The church has tried other recruiting strategies over the years, including “Who Let The Dogs In” services that allowed attendees to bring their pets.
Sunflower Private School, an elementary school that leases part of the building and is now trying to buy the property, started as a Hail Mary to bring more young children back into the congregation, Johnson said.
“But families already had their own churches,” she said.
“There is a time for everything,” Marsha Rydberg read in 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 forsake, a time to keep and a time to throw away.”
Over the years, Gulfport Presbyterian has provided disaster relief during hurricanes, helped farmhands in the fields, and featured at least one performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.
For Theresa McLean, 71, it was an oasis in the worst times of adolescence.
“I wasn’t popular in high school,” McLean said in an aside to Bob Ponder, 72, the church’s newest member in December. “I was in the youth group here, and that got me through.”
“The church back then was a family,” Ponder said.
“In the 60s and 70s, it was amazing,” McLean’s brother Jim Johnson, 75, said wistfully.
Youth membership began to dwindle in the 1970s, recall Presbyterian members in Gulfport.
As they grew older, began careers, and had children of their own, they did not return, continuing the wave of “contemporary” churches that appealed to young adults or abandoning the faith altogether. Overall membership suffered, in a slow drip that finally became unsustainable last year.
“You can’t have a church without money and without people,” Johnson said. The church voted to close its doors in September.
Still, some members will find a way to stay together in the community. Several said they planned to meet to try out Lakeview Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg next week.
In a bench towards the back, Kiki Kremer, 58, wiped her eyes throughout the service.
“I’ve lost four siblings over the past few years,” she said. “People at this church – they were calling me and calling me to check in, always. So it was an honor to be part of this congregation.
A church Sunday school teacher for 30 years, Kremer sat next to her four remaining students, a quartet of siblings who attended with their great-grandmother.
One of them, a girl with almond eyes and an open face, donned a shimmering 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 says. “Not many of my friends go to church. Only three do.
Reverend William Cowfer approached the pulpit to deliver the final sermon at Gulfport Presbyterian Church.
“When Jesus came down, the work of the disciples wasn’t done — it was beginning,” Cowfer said. “Although we have mixed emotions about not being able to continue here as a congregation, the congregation that has been here all these years is scattered across the world.
“They teach in schools. They are doctors. They are raising children and grandchildren,” he added. “Thus we can echo the words of Mary: I have seen the Lord.”
The reverend closes his message. The communion began when the pianist played Here, There and Everywhere by the Beatles. The Gulfport Presbyterian herd passed between the benches one last time.
Afterwards, the remaining members lingered – staying a little too long, eating too many refreshments, as any good church service requires you to do.
Throughout it all, Johnson remained practical, composed, grateful. She hopes the church will remember her mission statement: to live by faith and be known by love.
“It’s still my house,” she said. “I’m ready to come back next Sunday. But that’s it.
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