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Trouble in paradise?

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Neighbors divided over proposed church at Habersham


By Margaret Evans

For retiree Glen Goldenberg, living in Habersham is “like being on vacation all the time.” 

Goldenberg was drawn to the award-winning New Urbanist neighborhood about six years ago by the “diversity of the population” – residents hail from all over the country – along with the “charming, open-minded lifestyle in a wonderfully maintained environment.” 

Joy Kraft has similar feelings about her community. 

“Habersham is great,” she said. “I love the new urbanism. Our neighborhood is a very caring, cooperative group of people who volunteer left and right.” 

“I have made good friends in Habersham,” yet another resident told The Island News. “I have neighbors here that I have helped in a heartbeat, and I know they would do the same for me. And even though their politics or religious beliefs are quite different from mine, I have managed to live side by side with them.” 

But now there may be trouble in paradise. And ironically – or perhaps predictably – it’s coming in the form of a church. 

Background 

A couple of months ago, a small group of concerned residents went door to door delivering a letter to their neighbors, inviting them to an “Important Habersham Community Meeting.” The letter began: 

“For over a year (during COVID quarantine), the Anglican Church in North America (local Beaufort congregation, the Parish Church of St. Helena) has sponsored a worship group that first held outdoor Sunday services across Cherokee Farms Road and more recently in the wooded parking area just before the River Retreat. The group has now declared itself The Parish Church at Habersham and is proposing to build a formal church facility of at least 6,000 square feet and three levels on property they have contracted to purchase from the Habersham Land Company. The minister, on the staff of St. Helena, lives in Habersham …” 

On July 10, about 150 Habersham residents came together for that meeting, to ask questions, share information, and express concerns about this proposed church to be built on a wooded site designated “civic,” just beyond Habersham Marketplace, at what many consider the gateway to the neighborhood.

The civic site where the proposed Parish Church at Habersham will be built

Neither the church nor the Habersham Land Company (HLC) sent representatives to the meeting, though the church hosted its own public informational meeting a couple of weeks later, and the HLC answered questions via an FAQ document.

The residents’ list of concerns expressed at the July 10 meeting included: the size of the church; parking and traffic; the church’s name; its location; the fact that it’s a denominational church; and, for some, the denomination itself.

“We have utopia here,” Glen Goldenberg told The Island News. “We aren’t even allowed to post political signs, so as not to cause controversy and divisiveness. So why would you allow a permanent building for any denominational faith – be it the Parish Church at Habersham, the Mosque at Habersham, or the Synagogue at Habersham?”

Along with Goldenberg, some homeowners believe that any denominational church is inherently exclusionary – thus, not the proper use of a civic site – while others are specifically concerned about the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

“One of the things that drew us to Habersham was its designation as a New Urban Community,” resident Lauren White said. “We didn’t want to live in a gated community or one that excludes anyone. The proposed church to be built here is openly exclusionary of certain people and genders. There are many who live in this community that would not be able to get married in that church.”

The Anglican Church in North America & Anglican Diocese of SC

The ACNA defines Christian marriage exclusively as a lifelong union between a man and a woman and holds a pro-life position on abortion and euthanasia. Within the denomination, there are those who oppose and those who support the ordination of women; local churches can make their own decisions about female clergy, though women are ineligible to serve as bishops.

The ACNA was founded in 2009 by former members of the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada. Both groups were dissatisfied with the liberal doctrinal and social teachings of their former churches, holding them contrary to traditional Anglican belief.

The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina (ADSC), now part of the ACNA, was formed in 2012, when the historical Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina split into two groups – conservative and liberal – after a long period of internal conflict. The conservative ADSC and the liberal EDSC (Episcopal Diocese of S.C.) have been involved in a legal dispute over property for almost a decade.

Here in the Beaufort area, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Port Royal is part of the liberal EDSC, while the Parish Church of St. Helena downtown is part of the conservative ADSC, and “mother church” to the proposed Parish Church at Habersham.

Gateway to the neighborhood 

Habersham resident Tom Miller is a lifelong Episcopalian and an active member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. While he thinks a denominational church of any sort would be inappropriate at the “gateway” to Habersham, he’s particularly opposed to this church being built there.

“The idea of any denominational church on that site is extremely unhealthy for our community which, obviously, is already the case,” he said, referring to the growing controversy within the neighborhood. “And as the father of a gay daughter, that it could be a church where the clergy would not perform the marriage ceremony with the woman she loves, I find that repugnant.”

According to others who oppose the church, plenty of Habersham residents have LGBT family members and friends, and they worry that the church’s very presence – in such a prominent location – will make the neighborhood feel unwelcoming.

They also worry that the name – The Parish Church at Habersham – might imply to newcomers that Habersham, itself, is an Anglican community.

The Church responds

Rev. Jamie Sosnowski is the Associate Rector for Families at the Parish Church of St. Helena, priest in charge of the new Parish Church at Habersham, and a Habersham resident. He says the church doesn’t seek to impose itself – or its beliefs – on anybody.

“We respect that there are plenty of points of view represented in this neighborhood, and we are not demanding nor expecting that everyone in Habersham will attend the church or accept its doctrines,” Sosnowski told The Island News.

“We already worship every Sunday in Habersham and have for a year,” he continued. “We are now seeking to build a sacred space for our worship so that we do not need to cancel when it rains. We have been active in ministry and gatherings for nearly two years in this neighborhood and have never turned anyone away.”

Outdoor worship services have been happening in Habersham for more than a year.

Rev. Sosnowski stressed that his congregation is made up mostly of Habersham residents – 100 plus, who worship together outdoors every Sunday. Last Easter, that number was well more than 200.

“Our hope to establish a permanent place to worship in Habersham did not come from outside of the neighborhood, it came from within,” he said. “And we see great benefits to a true church with a living congregation being added to a neighborhood. Beyond Sunday morning worship, the church would have various ministries that would serve people or be a place where people can serve.”

Addressing specific concerns about the church’s theology and social teachings, Rev. Sosnowski said, “Believing that the Old and New Testaments are the word of God is the foundation of every Christian church, and it is certainly the foundation of Anglicanism. I believe we can be open and welcoming without departing from the word of God. The grace of the Gospel is for everyone.”

“If this neighborhood is diverse and inclusive,” he continued, “shouldn’t it also be able to include me and the many Habersham residents who worship with us?”

When asked about the name – The Parish Church at Habersham – and if the church might consider changing it to accommodate residents uncomfortable with the association, Rev. Sosnowski said that the church’s leadership team had taken great care in choosing that name.

“It was an intentional decision to use the word ‘at’ rather than ‘of’ to indicate that Habersham is the location of the church,” he said. “We did not choose to call it Habersham Parish Church or the Parish Church of Habersham deliberately, as that would imply that it represents the whole neighborhood. Most any church has to designate its location so as to be found by people looking for it. For example: St. John’s, Johns Island. Church of the Cross, Bluffton. St. Phillip’s, Charleston. We undeniably worship in Habersham as our location.”

Addressing the residents’ more practical concerns, like traffic and parking, Rev. Sosnowski referred to the outdoor worship services that have already been taking place for a year.

“Our congregation comes to worship by walking, biking, or golf cart. Many would not need to get in a car to come to church, so our parking demands will be minimal. This is going to be a ‘walkable church’ in a ‘walkable community.’ We find this to be a compelling vision that opens a lot of doors for deep relationships with neighbors. Right now, residents can already live, work, shop, and eat without getting in a car. We want to add worship to that list.”

The developer’s vision

The church’s vision jibes with that of the Habersham Land Company (HLC), which spoke through a representative via email, saying, “the idea of worshipping with the people you also share life with is made possible by traditional neighborhoods like Habersham.”

The HLC told The Island News that it’s common for denominational churches to be built on prominent sites designated “civic,” citing several well-known New Urbanist examples. I’on in Charleston has a Greek Orthodox church; St. Alban’s Square in Davidson, N.C., has an Episcopal church in the center of the neighborhood; Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., has a Mormon church at its entrance; Norton Commons in Prospect, Ky., has a Catholic church; and Mt. Laurel in Birmingham, Ala., has a Baptist church in its town center.

In a document entitled “Church Site FAQs,” the HLC says it has long envisioned a church on the civic site now under contract. Town urbanist Eric Moser drew up a plan for a church as early as 2004, and the HLC has worked with several other denominational churches – between 2004 and 2016 – who wanted to build there, but were unable to raise the funds.

Habersham town urbanist Eric Moser drew this sketch in 2004, in anticipation of a church at Habersham. The Parish Church at Habersham will use it as a design reference. 

In 2018, a group of Habersham residents even looked into building an interfaith chapel on the site, hoping to make it available to different churches and groups to rent. The HLC offered to donate the land if the residents could raise the funds for the building. Nothing came of that effort and it was eventually abandoned.

Then, in December of 2020, members of the newly formed Parish Church at Habersham approached the HLC and informed them that an average of 100-plus Habersham residents – joined by a few from Bray’s Island – had been worshipping outdoors there every Sunday during COVID and wanted to pursue a permanent home for the future. Not only that, but they were well on their way to raising the necessary funds. For the HLC, it felt like a puzzle piece falling into place. The land was put under contract.

In the FAQ document, the HLC explains how it believes the church will benefit the Habersham community:

“Physically, it will be a beautiful building that will be another piece of the urban plan meant to surround Le Chene Circle. … where all the pieces that make a great place to live come together. All pieces of life as a community, including living, working, shopping, playing and worshipping are represented around Le Chene Circle. So, it benefits the Habersham neighborhood by adding a missing hardware component.

“A church can also benefit the neighborhood by contributing to the software of the community, the social infrastructure. It does this by providing its space for certain neighborhood functions, by partnering with groups such as the social committee, welcome committee, tree team, etc., to help them with their efforts, by offering a sacred, safe place for people to come for help, for counseling, for someone to weep with after a loss, or with hard questions about life. A church enhances community by its service to the neighborhood.”

When confronted with the concerns expressed by some homeowners about the church’s theology, the HLC told The Island News, “Religion is always offensive to someone, but we must respect religious freedom. HLC did not seek out this particular denomination. Our goal has always been to have a church on this site, but we have never attempted to choose any certain religion or denomination.”

What now?

“Until this controversial issue arose, we have lived in a very harmonious atmosphere,” said Glen Goldenberg. “I would like to see us continue on that path.”

The list of Habersham residents who share Goldenberg’s opposition to the church has now grown from 20 to almost 200, and they are holding out hope that they can somehow stop the process that seems well under way. They’re writing letters to the Habersham Land Company, sharing information via email, and meeting regularly to discuss their options.

They’re not sure there’s anything they can do legally, but they’re hoping the HLC – or maybe even the church – will hear their concerns and have a change of heart. Several of those residents have reached out to The Island News, though only a few would go on record. With mounting tension in the community, many are loath to hurt their neighbors’ feelings with open criticism, eager to maintain the friendly, tolerant atmosphere they’ve come to know and love in Habersham.

One resident who asked to remain anonymous said, via email, “My husband and I got involved with other concerned neighbors once we learned about St. Helena’s wanting to establish a permanent church in our neighborhood. We knew there was a group of neighbors who often met for prayer, Bible studies, etc., and that was just fine with us. In fact, I loved that they may even have been praying for me, their neighbor. We welcomed them during Covid, knowing that their church was closed. Most of us believed that they would return to worship at St. Helena’s in town once Covid restrictions ended.”

“There are so many reasons NOT to build this church in that spot,” she continued, “And from what we have been told, only a single reason that it might still happen. Habersham Land Company wants to complete their vision of Habersham as a new urban neighborhood by erecting a building on the civic site.”

“There are so many twists and turns my head is spinning,” the resident said. “Something simple has become complex and dramatic. There is a cast of characters right out of a Pat Conroy novel. If he were alive, I would love to know his thoughts on what is happening in Habersham.” 

A perennial doubter and long-lapsed Catholic who nevertheless orchestrated his own high church Catholic funeral, not to mention his own burial in a Black Baptist cemetery, Conroy would probably have been the first to acknowledge that where matters of religion are concerned… it’s complicated.

Margaret Evans is co-publisher of The Island News and Lowcountry Weekly. She can be reached at editor@lcweekly.com

Photos above from the Habersham Land Company’s ‘Church Site FAQs’ document

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