Last Christmas for church that gave downtown its heart

Singer Arthur Wilson grew up in Augusta, attending Greene Street Presbyterian Church downtown. On Christmas Eve, this member of the Georgia Three Tenors
will deliver the sanctuary’s swan song.

“This is a tough gig for me,” he said. “For these people, who are looking at their last Christmas, we’re going to try to make it the best one we can.”

Members of the historic church anticipate that Good Friday will be their final
service as a functioning congregation. But they insist that the doors won’t close.

“Mark Twain once said that rumors of our demise have been greatly  exaggerated. We’re not closing a church, exactly,” explained Pastor Mark Deaton.

The church houses Greater Augusta Presbyterian Ministries (GAP), the community outreach arm of the Augusta area Presbyterian church. They
provide emergency assistance, a soup kitchen and light home and repair
assistance. The ministry will continue in the same location, and Deaton said that the church is considering other ways to serve the community besides traditional religious services,  including offering its space to other churches within the denomination and repairing the building so that they could expand a music ministry.

“What we’d like to do is continue our progress in restoring the sanctuary, which would allow us to do more music and forums and arts conducted with
spirituality,” Deaton said. He sees it as ideal for jazz, chamber music or choral
works, with space for about 200 people.

“Back in the ’40s and the ’50s, the Atlanta Opera used to come do their live
recordings in this sanctuary because it’s so acoustically ideal,” Deaton said.

The sanctuary just turned 100 years old, which kicks in its eligibility for the
national historic register. That also makes it prime for restoration grants and other assistance. But the estimated 40 or so members on its rolls will be forced to find another place to worship.

It is a change that has been a long time coming. Sixty years ago, the church
claimed about 400 members, Deaton estimates, but because of a divisive
charismatic movement within the denomination, changing downtown
demographics and the on-ramp for Calhoun Expressway, many members
moved to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church on Wheeler Road.

“Rather than closing at that time, we decided to extend some of the ministries,”
Deaton said. It’s a path they plan to travel again, and one that brought Deaton
closer to his faith when he was younger.

He found a lot of his spirituality, he said, through jazz artists like John Coltrane
and Wynton Marsalis. He has long struggled with how to enhance the appreciation for the spiritual side of art while keeping it informal enough for people to enjoy it.

“We hope for more of that kind of thing to come, where we would do more
musical concerts with the perhaps spiritual edge that you might not pick
up in a club,” he said, and in the process, “foster respect for such music as jazz,
blues and chamber music.”

To begin that process, Music Director Jayme Smalley has put together a stellar
service for Christmas Eve that will feature more musicians than a conductor can shake his stick at.

Wilson said that the Three Tenors have settled on at least two songs, including the traditional Appalachian carol “I Wonder as I Wander” and the stately Latin piece, “Ponis Angelicus.” Violinist Mary Losey, soprano Brittany Johnson, baritone Joe McKeown and pianist Angela Arrington will join the trio for a lessons and carols style program that will choose music and fellowship over lecture.

“So what we’re really trying to do is continue vitality of the faith,” Deaton said. “But to look at some different forms that might be more inclusive.”

The program, called “Candle ‘Lights Out,’” will be Sunday, Dec. 24, at 6 p.m. at Greene Street Presbyterian Church. The service is free to the public. Call 706-306-9568.

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