The new Life Center at First Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Wharf Street, on the same property as the church sanctuary, is nearly complete and will soon be ready for parishioners to use and enjoy. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

The new Life Center built next to First Zion Missionary Baptist Church is nearly ready for occupancy, according to Pastor Bennie Jenkins.

Groundbreaking for the new building was June 16, 2019, and Jenkins and the congregation expected to be using it in time for the church’s 158th anniversary last October, but – like everyone else – “We postponed a lot of things on our schedule last year,” said Jenkins.

“We had actually finished the building process early last year. The structure and everything is turnkey,” he said. “We still had some other line items as far as communication – monitors and things – but the building is about 95% ready to be utilized.”

Jenkins expects the final details to be finished and the last equipment installed, fully functional, and ready to be used in February.

“We’ve got some ideas concerning the Life Center. It’s a fellowship hall as well as a place for study, and we’re looking to extend the use to the community for meetings, workshops, small-setting social gatherings for everybody, town officials, business owners,” Jenkins said.

The church was founded in 1862 and is Bluffton’s second-oldest African American church. Abraham Murchison is recorded in the history books as organizing the church. An escaped slave, Rev. Murchison became the first preacher to serve the community of Mitchellville on Hilton Head Island. He is also credited with recruiting former slaves into the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment – the first all-black unit in the Civil War.

The church had a number of programs well-established prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down public gatherings of any kind. That won’t curb any plans for restarting those, as well as preparing for future initiatives“Before COVID came in, we had an after-school program in the sanctuary, but the vision for the future is it to have the after-school programs in the Life Center,” he said. “And if the Lord opens the way, we are looking to open a K-5 school in the future. The vision God gave us is to be a facility to help children – through educational means and other ways, such as counseling, and building kids academically and spiritually.”

The congregation had to make some serious choices in order to get the Life Center built.

“The beautiful thing is we are debt-free. We prayed about it, and there were some hard decisions to be made, but God gave us a budget. We stuck to the budget, and lo and behold! Looking back, if we had gotten a mortgage with COVID-19 hitting, we might not have been is such a good position,” Jenkins said. “We had a lot of members playing a big part in making this successful and we’re grateful.”

Those members total about 250 people of all ages.

“The strength of the church is 25 to 50 years old,” the pastor said. “We still have our patriarchs and matriarchs. They are still with us, giving us good guidance and wisdom from their longevity, and we thank God for them, who paved the way for us.”

Jenkins said the congregation is looking forward to being able to use the center and promises a celebration when the time comes.

“We’re pretty much relying on the whole vaccination process. We did do an in-house ribbon-cutting around February 2020 to do the prayer and ceremonial rites and all, so we did do something small. But something we are looking forward to doing is the final ceremonial rites, and we want the whole community involved when we cut the ribbon,” said Jenkins.

For 158 years, First Zion has been in the same location at 10 Robertson St., off Wharf Street and one block north of the Bluffton Oyster Factory.

At the moment, because of the current concerns and recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the church is not conducting in-house worship, but that hasn’t stopped them from worshipping.

“We are still having services on the church grounds. We are doing live-streaming online at 10 a.m. and we have people come out and park on the church grounds in their cars,” Jenkins said. Because the worship is outside, he said there have been a lot of guests who would otherwise not be attending the church’s services.

“We are now able to have members participating with people who were not members. People who were out walking their dogs or on their golf carts have stopped by, and now we have regular visits from these same people and we are grateful for that, too,” he said.

First Zion conducts a virtual Sunday service at 9 a.m. on its Facebook page and a live, in-person “drive-in” church at 10 a.m.

“And all are welcome: dogs, cats, golf carts. Everybody,” Jenkins said.

For more information, call 843-757-3129 or 843-757-3130, visit firstzionbc.com, email firstzion@hargray.com, or find the church on Facebook at firstzionmissionarybaptistchurchbluffton,sc.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.