NORD CHARLESTON, South Carolina
Joan Vandawaker must pass armed guards and show military ID to get to church on Sunday morning.
She could attend any number of places of worship in the Charleston area, but going to the Chapel at Joint Base Charleston is special to her. She enjoys sitting in the same row every week with her father, the 80-year-old retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant. Albert Hoyte. As a retired Air Force officer, it’s a way to bond with his father every Sunday.
âI grew up going to this chapel; I started my journey of faith at Joint Base Charleston, âVandawaker said. âThere are some wonderful churches in the Charleston area, but there is something incredibly unique about attending a service where people understand military culture.â
About fifty people on average make up the Sunday assembly of Protestant worship. But participants like Vandawaker and Hoyt fear their weekly trip to the base may end.
Lt. Col. Joel Kornegay, Joint Base Charleston’s senior chaplain, told worshipers that the number of military retirees in attendance has declined dramatically over the years and that there are too few active duty Airmen in attendance each day. week.
âWe have seen an approximately 30% drop in attendance at our Sunday morning Protestant worship service,â Kornegay said in a statement.
Kornegay told longtime devotees that attendance needs to increase to ensure that the time of service is kept on schedule. Some of those who have spent their lives in the church are devastated at the thought of losing it.
âWe were in an uproar, we were appalled,â Hoyte said. “If an active duty aviator is attending the service, that should be enough to keep it open.”
THE PANDEMIC DECLINE
What is happening at the Base Chapel is not a new problem in the military or a sudden and unforeseen problem facing churches across the country. The data shows that the younger generations are not as engaged in religion in general, while the older devotees are slowly disappearing with fewer new members to take their places in the pews.
Membership in most places of worship declined drastically last year, falling below 50 percent for the first time in 80 years, according to a recent Gallup poll. In numbers, in 2020, 47% of Americans reported belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque, up from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.
Last year saw the biggest drop due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic putting a hiatus on in-person church services. The chapel at Joint Base Charleston has also been hit hard by the virus.
âBefore the pandemic, we had about 120 participants,â Hoyte said. “After reopening the service last year, the membership has dropped to around 40.”
The base has started live streaming Sunday services to be on the safe side amid the pandemic. The flow also fueled the decline in in-person attendance.
The attendance of a chapel on a military base is unique. Services are only open to active duty members and military retirees with proper identification. They often bring their wives and families and raise their children in church.
A majority of Charleston AFB worshipers have been attending chapel services since the mid-1970s, after being posted to Charleston for the first time. This includes soldiers like David Ferguson, 87. The 30-year-old retired soldier was married to his second wife, Linda, in the chapel. The two worked there cooking and preparing meals for potlucks, breakfasts and picnics at church.
The loss of Sunday service would mean the loss of a cornerstone of their social life.
âI have been in the service since I was 19,â said David Ferguson. âI don’t know anywhere where to go if he were to close. I would be a foreigner if I went elsewhere. It wouldn’t be the same.
ATTRACTING THE YOUNG FREQUENTS OF THE CHURCH
Church attendance across the country is steadily declining for several reasons, but the impact can be particularly felt in places of worship at military sites where young people and singles make up the vast majority of new recruits.
âThis has always been a problem with young people who attend church, when they join the service they lose that obligation to go with their families and they have the freedom to go or not,â Hoyt said. .
Kornegay, the base’s senior chaplain, told worshipers his chaplains are stretched out and focus primarily on individual spiritual guidance for each unit on the base. Additionally, chaplains have focused overwhelmingly on suicide prevention in the military amid an alarming death toll in the ranks in 2020.
The suicide rate for active-duty troops rose to 28.7 per 100,000 last year from 26.3 the year before, according to the latest Defense Ministry report.
Notably, a 2020 Gallup poll showed that mental health assessments across the country fell to a new low amid the pandemic, but noted that “frequent church worshipers show the least change. in their mental health assessments â.
The numbers come amid a shortage of chaplains in the military, especially among Catholic priests.
The Catholic Church must often encourage priests to enlist in the army, for example by paying half of their religious education. At Joint Base Charleston, the base priest is a contract government employee.
While the Protestant service at the chapel risks being cut off, the Catholic Mass is safe for now.
Vandawaker said maintaining the hour-long Protestant service on Sundays would not be an unusual burden on chaplains and stressed that Protestant service could be “another important resource” for struggling airmen.
Air Force Policy 52-101 states that times of mass and religious services are provided “in response to the validated religious needs of affected Airmen and their authorized dependents taking into account the capabilities of personnel and available resources. “.
Sunday morning worshipers try to recruit more active families to come to the base chapel. Ideally, they would like new worshipers to make up about 40 percent of their congregation by the end of the year.
Devotees like Linda Ferguson hope attendance will “bounce back.” So far, they have increased the number of active families on Sunday from two to six.
A group of worshipers plan to speak with Col. Marc Greene, the commander of Joint Base Charleston, next week about their concerns and progress in recruiting new participants.
âWe feel comfortable and at home in this church,â Hoyte said. ” We are a big family.