Coal Branch Heights is a hilltop community on rural route 6, in back of the old city incinerator, situated between Capitol Hill and Charleston’s airport. Although it is located right outside of downtown, many have never traveled to this part of the city. Those who live on the hill share a special bond, held firm by the presence of St. Stephens United Methodist Church.
“Ten percent of the people who attend St. Stephens drive from outside of Coal Branch Heights. The majority of the congregation originates from there, and their families still live on the hill,” says Rev. Larry Patterson.
The people of Coal Branch Heights have embraced the church as the community center, though not without struggle. A couple years ago, St. Stephens, along with five other churches within the Midland South District Office of the United Methodist Church were asked to consider a potential merger. Because maintaining the separate churches was somewhat problematic in providing pastoral service, Methodist leaders asked the churches to close and join membership within one big church.
Four of the six churches agreed to the merger, and the Canaan United Methodist Church was created. St. Stephens and Simpson United Methodist Church, located downtown, decided to remain independent and in a charge together under Rev. Larry Patterson. Every fifth Sunday, the members of St. Stephens go to Simpson to have service together under the charge.
“We had a community meeting to vote whether or not to keep St. Stephens open and told everyone that if you continue to want this church as a community center, as the light on the hill, then we need everyone to come together and support each other,” says Angel Cincinnati, a longtime resident of Coal Branch Heights and member of St. Stephens.
“This community, it needs this community church.”
For over 50 years, a single bell has rung at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, a half-hour before the start of service, to gather neighbors into the church. The inter-racial congregation is composed of about fifteen members, the majority of whom still walk from their homes up and across the hill to church. They all fit together on one side of the aisle.
Everyone has an opportunity at St. Stephens. Members take turns leading bible study each week, and are encouraged to do whatever the spirit inspires them to do. A husband and wife team performs a capella during the service, with members of the congregation cheering in support. “St. Stephens is an unstructured and informal worship setting with free-flow of spirit and expression…the message is of love and community,” says Cincinnati.
At least six of the 15 members have personal keys to the church, yet every Sunday, the same individual arrives first to open the doors and ring the morning bell. The hands that ring the bell are those that helped build St. Stephens in 1953. Clarence Wanzer, born September 4, 1910, moved into the integrated community of Coal Branch Heights in 1939. It was there he decided to build his home and become involved in the community. Over seventy years later, Mr. Wanzer is still the first person to greet churchgoers as they enter St. Stephens. He meets them at the door with a warm welcome, usually with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“To me, this church means everything…my whole life,” says Wanzer.
Wanzer just celebrated his 100th birthday with the congregation of St. Stephens, though the church at one time did not embrace him. Completed in 1953, the newly constructed St. Stephens United Methodist Church was open only to the white members of Coal Branch Heights. After working tirelessly to gather resources and organize the construction of a church school, Wanzer and other African Americans who helped build the first church in Coal Branch Heights, were refused the right to worship there. In response, Mr. Wanzer purchased a small piece of land at the top of the hill where he constructed the House of Prayer, which welcomed all those turned away. It wasn’t until 1965 that the new Methodist District Superintendant invited these families back to St. Stephens. It has been the community center ever since.
“I love this church, it’s like a big family,” says Rose Mayhew, a longtime resident of Coal Branch Heights and member of St. Stephens United Methodist Church.
While it was a struggle to both build and then maintain the church, the community has always answered the call. “It makes it easier for us to just buckle down and meet the needs because we’ve always been that kind of church,” says Cincinnati.
The collaboration of the community is what keeps St. Stephens alive. The money taken from collection during Sunday service pays the utilities and the pastor’s salary. Volunteers make everything else within the church possible. “Some churches may pay the pianist, or pay someone to clean the church and cut the grass, but when you make it on a volunteer basis you keep the money in the church so it can survive”, says Cincinnati. “You just dig deeper and give a little more when needed… whatever it takes.”
Instead of beginning morning service with an organ or church choir, the congregation at St. Stephens joins together in song, accompanied by the beat of tambourines. Wanzer stands before the congregation with tambourine in hand, leading the call and response vocals. The energy created from this collaborative musical effort carries through the entire service until the very end when members join together, holding hands in a circle in front of the altar. After the prayer, the circle breaks as members give one another a loving hug or pat on the shoulder.
“St. Stephens is like a gas station for the soul,” says Cincinnati. “You come in and you may be emotionally drained, but I guarantee you’ll leave with a full tank… it’s the comfort and love within this community that keeps us together.”
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