After church, over coffee and donuts, Georgia Tate passed around photos of her second week at Chapel Under The Pines, the summer lakeside services of St. John United Methodist Church.
It was August 2008 when she first came to the service, founded nearly 50 years ago to minister to vacationers at Thurmond Lake. During that year’s drought, the reservoir fell more than 16 feet below full pool. Her photos show a muddy beach and a pulpit set on cinderblocks and stilts, with little room for boats in St. John’s cove.
“It’s definitely different now,” organizer Curt Strickland said.
For the first time in years, there’s more than enough water to keep the dock floating. Recent rains have brought the reservoir to full pool for the first time in 3½ years. Attendance is up at the services as a result, Strickland said.
“It’s nice to have the water where the boats can come and enjoy,” he said.
This weekend, the Rev. Robert Patton, of Modoc Baptist Church, preached on Jonah 1. Organist Pam Bussey and song leader Judi Keith – both longtime fixtures of the service – led music. Windy conditions Sunday kept most boaters away, but it’s not unusual to have six to 10 boats surrounding the pulpit, Strickland said. An additional 40 to 50 people arrive by car and crowd the shore on sunny days.
The lake is a picturesque setting to meet God, said Cecil Sharp, who has been attending the services with his wife, Patti, for years.
“We love coming because it just really draws the spirit here and that's very refreshing,” he said. “We can visit a church and maybe not experience that, but when we come out here, the setting really helps to draw the presence of Christ."
The service, he said, is like “a hidden gem.”
Chapel Under The Pines began the summer of 1964 under the Rev. James “Red” Segars, a “country boy” who loved to fish, according to a history of the church. He often preached from the floating pulpit, even though it made him a little seasick.
The services include all the traditional elements: announcements, hymns, prayer, an offering, sermon and benediction. For 49 years, ushers at Chapel Under The Pines have taken the offering the same way: with a bag passed from boat to boat on the end of a long pole.
Sally Inman and her family are regulars. They come to the lake from Augusta on the weekends.
“We come for church, then go sailing,” she said. “We love coming here for the services at the lake. It’s how we start our Sundays.”