By DEEANNA WILKERSON
A Bluffton church has found its home in one of the most unlikely of places.
What was once a place for liquor swilling, rowdy crowds and loud music has undergone a stark transformation to become the new place of worship for St. Andrew By-The-Sea’s Bluffton campus.
Over the years, 39 Persimmon St., Suite 203 in Sheridan Park attracted the late-night crowds of establishments like the House of Tunes Music Hall and Coconuts Bar & Grill.
A man was shot at the bar in December 2014 when it was known as Club Encore. In September, Bluffton police raided Burroughs Bar and Grill Night Club at the same location. Among nine people arrested was the owner, who was charged with operating without a business license or liquor permit.
The building was left untouched until a member of St. Andrew By-The-Sea happened to see a “for lease” sign in the window and seized the opportunity.
About five years ago, the United Methodist church’s leaders and congregation began praying about starting a new ministry not far from its home on Hilton Head Island.
“Mission is truly the heart of St. Andrew By-The-Sea, and as much as we were reaching out regionally and globally, we knew there were a lot of people that we could reach right across the bridge,” said Laura Jacobi, a longtime church member.
In 2012, associate pastor Daniel Burbage was tasked with guiding a new Bluffton campus.
The church began offering contemporary worship services Feb. 9, 2014, at the University of South Carolina Beaufort’s Hargray building. Each Sunday, church members filled a van with chairs and supplies and set up for the service. Then the items were packed up and stored in a Bluffton office.
A core group of about 20 grew to an average of 130 people in a space with a capacity of 110.
St. Andrew By-The-Sea owns 10 acres on Buckwalter Parkway, across from Buckwalter Place, where it plans to eventually build a permanent church. But that project is years down the road.
Burbage and other church members looked at several spaces in search of a more concrete location, but none seemed to offer the space for worship and church offices. That is, until they found the building in Sheridan Park.
‘It was a mess’
Josh Tiller, a longtime church member who spearheaded the new space’s renovation, said it wasn’t a pretty sight in November when he and Burbage first walked into the building.
“It smelled like a bar, it looked like a bar,” he said. “There were fruit flies where the trash was sitting. It was a mess.”
But they saw potential in the former pool hall and club.
Instead of a storage room filled with liquor bottles, Burbage saw an office. Where bar-goers once danced to a live band onstage, he imagined a congregation sitting and listening to the church band.
The wooden bar wasn’t a place for frothy beers, but an area for coffee and snacks as people watched a church service.
“It had everything we needed built in. We just had to add the classrooms,” Tiller said. “It had the stage, it had the equipment. None of the other spaces had any of that. Compared to the other spaces, this was turn-key.”
Once the church secured the lease, members pitched in to clean, paint and add walls to create a nursery and children’s classroom. With the help of about 50 volunteers, about three weeks’ worth of painting was completed in one day.
“It was amazing how fast this got done,” Tiller said.
Though the space has been completely transformed, some remnants of its past are still visible.
Bullet holes leave a lasting mark on the side of the building’s exterior. A disco ball and old light fixtures dangle from the ceiling. The original wooden bar and stools create an informal gathering area.
And the wood from another bar was used to create a large wooden cross that hangs in the sanctuary. It serves as a reminder that something new can be created from any kind of past.
“The pastor in me immediately said, ‘Wow, this is a great story to tell,’ and it can be a living story of who we are and what the church can be and what God can be,” Burbage said.
Burbage hopes the new campus will be an open and welcoming space that represents the church as a whole. Worship services are held at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday, but he hopes to expand to weeknights and include more youth and small-group activities throughout the week.
“We’re a very welcoming group of people. Most church spaces, you have a lobby and then you have your open worship area, whereas this is all one big open space,” he said.
“I think it’s perfect for us because we’re a very friendly and welcoming group and it kind of feels more like a community than a lot of spaces we found.”