By Richard Taylor
After leading Ocracoke United Methodist Church for nearly two years, Susie Fitch-Slater will soon return to her home church, Bethany United Methodist Church in Wanchese.
Pastor Susie, as she is known to her congregation and friends, announced her relocation after last Sunday’s outdoor worship service at Books to Be Red, and in a subsequent email letter to church members.
Susie moved here in July 2019 with her husband Tom Slater, replacing Richard Bryant two months before Hurricane Dorian devastated the island Sept. 6.
Dorian flooded the 1923-built main church building on School Road as well as the parsonage on Howard Street, forcing Susie and Tom to retreat to their attic at the height of the storm.
The couple subsequently found rental housing, moving several times.
Pastor Ivey Belch immediately opened up his Life Saving Church on Lighthouse Road parish for joint Sunday services and other fellowship.
The two pastors became fast friends and began holding services in front of the closed Ocracoke School building, and later with joint services on the lawn of Books to Be Red.
Belch was instrumental in leading the island recovery following Dorian and founded the Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team of which Pastor Susie is a member.
Soon after the COVID-19 shutdown in May 2020, Susie and Pastor Ivey began broadcasting 7 a.m. prayer services on Facebook and Zoom as “The Kingdom Alive,” and led joint Sunday morning worship services at the Life Saving Church. Susie also leads a Thursday evening online Women’s Bible Study. Their social media broadcasts continue to draw a worldwide audience.
Susie and Tom finally moved back into the raised parsonage late this spring. The Methodist Church has been raised but will not be ready for inside services until mid-summer.
In her letter, Susie said the two congregations will no longer hold joint services, though she will personally continue to participate in Ivey’s 11 a.m. worship until she leaves.
Methodist Sunday 10 a.m. services will now be on the church lawn until the sanctuary repairs are completed later this summer.
The church will hold an appreciation pot-luck dinner in the church’s recreation hall at 5 p.m. today for Christian Aid Ministry volunteers who have been helping with church repairs as well as rebuilding some homes damaged or destroyed by Dorian. A Mennonite choir will sing in the partially-reconstructed sanctuary after the meal, the first activity in the building since Dorian.
“Don’t just come and bring a dessert and hear this group sing,” Pastor Susie said. “Come in fellowship. They’re absolutely beautiful.”
At the Methodist Church’s first choir practice in nearly two years Thursday night, Desiree Christa Ricker, the church’s choir director, was happy to have the congregation coming back together again.
“Our music ministry singing in harmony is something we’ve all missed,” she said. “This is really the first time everybody’s felt comfortable being together since COVID.”
Ricker put a positive spin on Fitch-Slater’s leaving.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity for her to return home to be the first female pastor at a church that told her women can’t be pastors. For us, we were lucky to have her in the time that we did. I think that was the time she was meant to be here with us and to bring the community together in a way that we hadn’t before.”
Ricker said Pastor Susie will probably continue to be a spiritual mentor and friend to many on the island.
“In some ways it seems right that as we enter into our next phase, we can have someone new come here that doesn’t have to carry the weight of the last two years,” she said.
During Friday morning’s 7 a.m. joint devotional on Facebook, Belch said, “What a blessing it’s been for me over these last 21 months to walk together with you Pastor Susie and to worship with you.
“What an honor we’ve had to do this together. I’m thankful for those opportunities.”
Reflecting on her relationship with Belch over the last two years, Susie replied, “I can Amen that!”
When sanctuary repairs are completed, the church’s new pastor (still to be named) will hold a consecration service, possibly in time for the church’s July 4 anniversary.