A sign off U.S. Highway 221 reads in worn blue paint: “St. John United Methodist Church-Camp Site. Everybody welcome.”
It’s the entrance to the place where, for the past 48 years, the church has ministered to vacationers at Thurmond Lake.
Every Sunday, from the first week of June through Labor Day weekend, a few dozen people gather, in boats and on the shore, for an outdoor church service on the lake about two miles north of Clarks Hill, S.C.
“We’re glad to see everybody again,” said Curt Strickland, at the first lake service of the season on Sunday.
In many ways, the outdoor church resembles a traditional sanctuary. There are preachers and a pulpit, offering baskets, an organ, hymnals and pews. Like any good church service, coffee and donuts are served afterward, Strickland, St. John’s organizer of the services, said with a laugh.
Except at the Chapel Under The Pines, as the church calls it, the pulpit sits on a dock. The offering is collected from boats in the water by passing a basket attached to a long pole.
“It’s unconventional, but that’s why we come,” said Penny Morris, a St. John’s member who lives in Modoc, S.C. She’ll travel to the downtown church three seasons of the year, but come summer, Morris takes her boat down Thurmond Lake to the No. 10 buoy about two miles above the dam, turns into a cove bearing a sign for Chapel Under The Pines, and parks her boat along the shore.
In good weather, it’s not hard to spot. Most, however, drive up U.S. Highway 221 and sit on one of the makeshift pews or a lawn chair.
All ages attend, and a handful of worshippers also bring dogs.
On Sunday, his wife, Patty Strickland, preached the first service.
“We all go through wildernesses in our lives. Some of them are bigger than others. The loss of a job. The loss of a loved one,” she said in a sermon based on the Samaritan woman in John 4. “In those wildernesses of our lives, Jesus always comes to us.”
The services, which last about 40 minutes, include hymns led by Pam Bussey and Judi Keith.
When it rains, services are held inside at a nearby lodge. High or low water, rain or no rain, Morris said it’s the place she wants to be come summer.
“I’ve got my swimsuit on and am going for a swim after this,” she said. “It’s a beautiful way to start a Sunday.”