Running short on money and membership, a 75-year-old Florida congregation that dwindled to just 19 amid the pandemic, gathered for its final service a week ago.
The website for Gulfport Presbyterian Church is still up and running for now, but as far as the now 19 former members are concerned, their final service, livestreamed on Facebook on April 24, was their last hurrah.
“You can’t have a church without money and people,” 93-year-old longtime member, Yvonne Johnson, who served for some 50 years in the church, told News 4 Jax.
After years of watching members die or leave the congregation and failing to attract new ones, the remaining members of Gulfport Presbyterian Church decided last September that it was time to close down their church, one of the oldest religious institutions in Gulfport.
“There is a time for everything,” Marsha Rydberg read at the final service from the book of Ecclesiastes. “A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot … a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away.”
Members recall the heyday of the church in the '60s and '70s when they didn’t struggle to find worshipers. Since then, however, the church started losing young people who were supposed to keep the church going.
They also tried different efforts to bring back followers to their church, but they all failed.
The Rev. Micki Robinson, 66, the church’s longtime pastor who retired last year, recalled how she would play her harp at downtown Gulfport’s First Friday Art Walks to attract new members.
“I’d play just so people knew we existed,” Robinson told News4Jax. “But the community changed and the world changed. People walked in and they saw old people — they didn’t realize how young they were in attitude.”
The church also tried other strategies like “Who Let The Dogs In” — services that allowed people to bring their pets to worship. Their efforts weren’t enough so they made the decision last year that they would close on the final Sunday in April.
Calls to the church by The Christian Post on Monday went unanswered, but members like 71-year-old Theresa McLean recalled to News4Jax how the church helped them get through some of the toughest times in life.
“I wasn’t popular in high school,” said McLean. “I was in the youth group here, and that got me through.”
Speaking during the last service, the Rev. William Cowfer said despite the shuttering of the congregation, the work of Jesus would continue.
“When Jesus descended, the disciples’ work was not done — it was beginning,” he said. “Though we have mixed emotions about not being able to continue here as a congregation, the congregation that was here all these years is scattered throughout the world.”