His smile starts in his eyes as the rest of his face catches up to the feeling.
“It took 92 years to build what you see today. It took 92 years of hard work, of sacrifice, to make this happen,” the Rev. Bobby Wilkes Jr. said to nearly 800 people gathered at Myrtle Beach’s First Presbyterian Church to dedicate the new sanctuary. “Our history, our tradition, is not a hitching post. It’s a launching pad for new ways to serve God.”
Wilkes began serving as the senior minister in 1983 and had retired in 2011 after ushering through the building project that has resulted in the church’s relocation from Kings Highway to Grissom Parkway. The move started with the purchase of nearly 20 acres of land in 2001. Fundraisers were held and donations tallied to build the first phase of the move — Wilkes Hall, an education building and church offices — by 2008.
In 2016, church and community leaders gathered to break ground for the new sanctuary.
Since then the church building was increased with a 37,000-square-foot addition including the sanctuary that seats up to 800, 250 more than the old sanctuary. The total building footprint is up to 64,000 square feet compared to 40,000 of the Kings Highway campus.
The congregation has been at the new campus located at 3810 Robert M. Grissom Parkway since April, but gathered for the dedication on Sunday. The Kings Highway campus is currently on the market to be sold. It has been appraised at $3.6 million.
On Sunday, Wilkes came back to embrace his friends, shake hands with visitors and stand in the pulpit again.
He had been the fifth of six ministers at the church that’s a decade older than the city of Myrtle Beach.
The sixth minister, John Brearley, is the grandson of the original First Presbyterian Church minister.
Cecil D. Brearley began his ministry in Horry County at Conway’s Kingston Presbyterian Church in 1928. For 16 years every other Sunday, Brearley made a 60-mile triangle trek from Conway to Murrells Inlet to Myrtle Beach and back home to Conway.
The church started with about 19 members where Mammy’s Kitchen restaurant sits. In 1948, the church moved to the Kings Highway campus at 14th Avenue North. Disabled American Veterans off Church Street in Myrtle Beach now uses the old, original building.
Through all the changes, the church’s membership has grown to nearly 1,500 on the books.
John Brearley said the church hired its second senior minister for two years in the early 1940s, but Cecil Brearley was brought back to serve another 16 years.
“Downtown, I stood in the pulpit he preached in every Sunday. I literally stood in his footsteps every Sunday downtown,” John Brearley said.
Laughing, John Brearley said the planners didn’t start out to build a larger replica of the Kings Highway church, but it is remarkably similar from the brick painted white to the interior trim work to match the old sanctuary.
“We had to change the stationery because the address changed, but we almost could have left the same picture on it,” he said.
John Brearley, who has been the senior minister for six years, said he has a shoebox with about 100 hand written sermons from his grandfather. And, he looks off in the distance, he smiles thinking about the time he was a college junior and told his grandfather he had been called to the ministry.
“The only preaching advice he ever gave me, he said, ‘John, if you let the people out on time,’ and by that he meant within the hour. ‘But if you let the people out on time,’ he said, ‘they will always have one thing to be thankful for,’” John Brearley said of holding close to that advice except on special occasions such as the dedication service on Sunday. “He’s the person I wanted to be when I grew up.”
John Brearley has a long line of Presbyterian ministers to count in his family dating back to the 1500s with John Knox, the Scottish reformer and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He counts back to his great-great-grandfather’s ministry in South Carolina, his grandfather, uncle, father and brother who have all been Presbyterian ministers.
On Monday after the dedication service John Brearley is tempted to talk more about his family, but glancing at his watch he knows he’s due for a meeting about the church’s future.
On Saturday, the church is hosting the concert hand bell choir Raleigh Ringers beginning at 7 p.m. There’s services to be planned for the coming week — a weekly 6 p.m. Thursday service, an 8:30 a.m. Sunday service, a 9 a.m. Sunday service and the traditional 11 a.m. Sunday service.
“We are not here for ourselves,” John Brearley said. “We are here for the larger community.”
And those Presbyterian prints not only predate the city, they reach into numerous nonprofits in Horry County including Neighbor to Neighbor, Helping Hand, Mobile Meals of Myrtle Beach, the Rotary Club and Associated Charities.
Downstairs from John Brearley’s office, around the corner and past Wilkes Hall is a meeting room with a conference table filled with church leaders.
“They’re in there right now talking about building the chapel and the youth center and a columbarium,” he said walking to the meeting.
The chapel, which is still in the planning stages, is to be located behind the church and should seat about 170 people. Many parts of the Kings Highway church are being stored to use in the chapel, he said. The youth center is also planned to be constructed behind the church to hold areas the growing young members can gather.
And, John Brearley said, the Kings Highway church has never had a cemetery because of its downtown location so church leaders are discussing a columbarium to be located on the Grissom site.
“There’s more building to be done, but not right away,” John Brearley said. “The pressure is off. The heavy lifting is done.”
And he credits much of the heavy lifting to the volunteers and Wilkes.
Sunday morning Wilkes surveyed the crowd, nodded to friends and teased John Brearley about his golf game. He talked about the dedication not being a bookend to the church’s story, but a starting point for a wide-open future.
He joined John Brearley for the benediction with the final words to the congregation.
“Let’s go be a piece of the puzzle,” Wilkes said closing the Sunday service. “Let all of God’s people say, ‘Amen.’”