Closing to dodge COVID-19, rural churches have been threatened by another microbe: mold

By Thad Moore
Post and courier

ALCOLU — Several months into the pandemic, Reverend Franklin Colclough received a call from a member who had seen something alarming at their church, Harmony Presbyterian.

Although the congregation is meeting virtually, she had come to clean up. A few members still met in person to collect tithes, so Colclough asked him to focus there. He told her not to worry about the vacant shrine.

She peeked inside anyway and discovered a problem that many small, rural churches faced after extended closures: there was mold everywhere.

Colclough remembers walking through the back door of the shrine and seeing mushrooms all the way to the front. The room smelled musty. Black spots had appeared on the walls and ceilings. Everything was cast in a dusty light green—the flags on the back wall, the Bibles and hymns on the pews, the pews themselves. He ran his hand over the furniture and a cloud of spores rose.

“I had never seen anything like it, but thank God it was more mold than mold,” Colclough said.

Cleaning the church, restoring furniture and painting the walls ultimately cost the congregation more than $10,000, Colclough estimates. The damage to Harmony Presbyterian represents a hidden secondary toll of the pandemic on rural churches, an added cost at a time when many are already struggling with declining memberships and reduced collections. If left untreated, mold poses a health risk to members with weakened immune systems or respiratory illnesses, and it can threaten the structure of the building.

The extent of damage to churches from the closure has not been investigated, but the extent of the problem appears in Clarendon County government records, which cut more than $1 million in checks to organizations in local nonprofits to help them through the pandemic.

Inside the dry language of government forms, the grant applications they received tell the story of problems that have become widespread in this corner of the state: mold in the communion halls and the pipes of the organ, crumbling Bibles and collapsing structures.

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Clarendon County is an hour and a half north of Charleston, cradled by Lake Marion and bisected by Interstate 95. But off the freeway, the landscape is dotted with houses of worship.

“We have churches above churches. We have so many churches,” said Curt Richburg, a church supply salesman who lives in Manning, the county seat.

So when the county council decided in 2021 to earmark federal stimulus funds to help local nonprofits, the program largely gave grants to churches. Of the nearly $1.1 million distributed to nonprofits, records show about $714,000 went to more than 75 religious groups.

Most of their requests were for the kinds of COVID-19-related expenses that have become commonplace after two years of the pandemic: masks, cleaning supplies and ventilation upgrades. But as soon as the county started accepting applications, they heard from churches struggling with moisture damage, said county chief financial officer Lynden Anthony, who ran the grant program.

A total of at least 17 churches reported mold and dampness problems, according to their inquiries, which The Post and Courier obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

They included churches with histories dating back to the 1800s and two congregations that played key roles in the civil rights movement. One was the historic Mt. Zion AME Church, which held meetings on desegregation as one of its members sued the county school board for its unequal treatment of black and white students.

His case laid the groundwork for Briggs v Elliott, the landmark desegregation case that the United States Supreme Court combined with Brown v Board. The families who filed the Briggs case met at another nearby church, Union Cypress AME. County records show mold was also found there, clinging to the walls and piano.

The grant applications also included striking requests for funding in a country founded on the ideals of separation of church and state. One congregation, for example, requested money to purchase 50 hymns and 72 King James Bibles, as well as a cowhide-bound copy for the pulpit.

Clarendon County ultimately sidestepped these concerns when it determined it would not pay for mold remediation. The county took a strict reading of the US Treasury Department’s rules for stimulus funds, Anthony said. According to his interpretation, the money could be used to repair damage to homes caused by COVID-19, but not to public facilities.

Churches claiming moisture damage were encouraged to submit new claims, and the county allocated the money based on the size of the churches instead of their specific claims.

Whether churches ultimately used grant funds to address structural issues anyway is not entirely clear. The county did not require organizations to submit receipts showing how they spent the money, Anthony said. And the US government has given counties and cities wide latitude to distribute stimulus funds as they see fit. For example, they can give grants to nonprofits and even private businesses as long as they can show that the pandemic has impacted their income.

And several churches with dampness issues directly link the arrival of COVID-19 in South Carolina to the growth of mold in their sanctuaries.

rural issue

The churches that have asked for help with the mold are mostly small congregations, without the resources to keep the air going all the time, and most have experienced prolonged closures.

Clarendon County was one of the state’s first coronavirus hotspots of 2020, with an early surge that disproportionately affected older black residents, who also make up most members of affected churches. Church leaders say their congregations have been reluctant to return to in-person worship in light of the risks to the elderly.

These dynamics may have created a unique set of circumstances. Leaders of several major Protestant denominations in South Carolina said they haven’t heard of mold problems in their congregations, possibly because they haven’t been closed for that long.

“Although we pressed the worship pause button a few times, we never fully paused long enough to encounter mold and mildew issues,” said Reverend Jim Lewis, Canon Ordinary of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. .

But as the months passed in County Clarendon, the problems became more evident, local church leaders say.

At Historic Mount Zion AME, board chairman James Kindell noticed a few fine mushroom hairs turning darker and darker as he made visits to try to air out the sanctuary.

At Oak Grove Missionary Baptist, leaders decided to expand virtual services because spots of mold had grown on the walls, clerk George Frierson III said.

And at St. Peter AME, George McConico has seen the collections slip and the challenges mount for his congregation, which has only about 15 active members. In the nearly century-old sanctuary, he saw the ceilings and pews gradually discolor, then turn yellowish-green. In the dining room, he saw the floor sinking. When someone came to see the damage, the man fell to the ground.

St. Peter sits in the middle of a field – fallow, at this time of year – at the end of a long driveway through a grove of trees. It is a few kilometers from Rimini, a crossroads community where the train stopped coming decades ago.

Its members regard St. Peter, founded in 1859, as the region’s mother church. It has a deep history and broad roots; Not so long ago the church received an offering from someone in Baltimore who still claimed the church as his own.

But like other rural churches, membership has dwindled. Just two decades ago, there were enough members for member steward Elijah McConico to start a youth choir with a dozen children. Now the youngest member of the church is out of school.

The dwindling membership left Saint-Pierre with few resources to repair its damage. George McConico, who chairs the church board, said the church had followed county instructions not to use grant money for repairs, and repairing the sunken floor had emptied the coffers from the church.

He would like to replace the faded pew cushions, once covered in mold, which the members cleaned up as best they could. He would like to replace the drooping blades of the ceiling fans, which had also been covered. In early February, they also found a rotting bathroom cabinet.

“We don’t have the funds for that right now,” George McConico said.

He looks forward to making the building safe and comfortable when the members return, hopefully soon. The church has returned to virtual services due to the omicron surge. The congregation is back to conference call services – back to missing reading and singing together, shaking hands and hugging, sharing Sunday mornings with family and friends.

When the church met before COVID-19, every service was like starting a fire, Elijah McConico said. In a few hours, songs and devotions make sparks, until the pastor’s sermon ignites the room.

“Once you start the fire, you get warm,” he said.

The pandemic has made it more difficult to maintain the flame.

Rickey Ciapha Dennis Jr. contributed to this report from Charleston.

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