The church with 19 regular worshipers holds the last service

By Hannah Critchfield Tampa Bay Weather

GULFPORT, Fla. (AP) — Half a century ago, Yvonne Johnson came to Gulfport to build a house with her husband. To her surprise, she ended up helping build a church.

“It has become my home,” the 93-year-old said Sunday as he sat in the lobby of Gulfport Presbyterian Church.

That morning, there was no trace of the spare Bibles, slow cookers, or unused cans of decaffeinated coffee that littered the hallway earlier that week. The 75-year-old debris of Sundays had been cleared just in time.

The church was clean and welcoming: the same refreshments—coffee, pink and white cookies, granola bars—welcoming attendees at the back of the chapel as always.

Except this time, as Johnson approached the lectern, stabilized by her walker, about 50 people watched her from the pews. The light from the stained glass illuminated their faces. Some had come from as far away as Orlando.

“If we had so many people every Sunday, we wouldn’t close,” she says with a warm, mischievous smile. The last Gulfport Presbyterian Church service was underway.

One of the oldest religious institutions in the city, its membership was down to just 19 by the time it closed.

The church joins a swathe of places of worship across the United States that have closed as attendance dwindles and fewer young people participate in organized religion, increasingly identifying as spiritual but not religious.

“When we lost the young people, we never got them back,” said Johnson, the church’s most senior member. “As the older members passed away, they were not replaced.”

The service moved forward as Reverend Micki Robinson, 66, a longtime pastor of the church before retiring last year, played a singsong piece on her honey-coloured harp.

She still remembers when she presented the harp at the First Friday Art Walks in downtown Gulfport, trying to invite new members.

“I would just play so people know we exist,” Robinson said. “But the community has changed and the world has changed. People came in and they saw old people – they didn’t realize how young they were.

The church has tried other recruiting strategies over the years, including “Who Let The Dogs In” services that allowed attendees to bring their pets.

Sunflower Private School, an elementary school that leases part of the building and is now trying to buy the property, started as a Hail Mary to bring more young children back into the congregation, Johnson said.

“But families already had their own churches,” she said.

Jerry B. Hatch