I read my friend Mike's blog and he referred to this letter in the Christian Index. It made me think about the things I miss when I go to church nowadays.
My wife and I attend The Father's House, a church in Dawsonville. It's a non-denominational congregation housed in a former warehouse. I love the pastor, the music, the spirit of the place. It reminds me a little of the church I grew up in, Midway Baptist, halfway between Barnesville and Jackson, Georgia.
But this church ain't Midway.
I've never been in a church like Midway since I left there to attend college in 1976. I'm not sure there's another church like it (the way I remember it) anywhere.
Time either romanticizes or demonizes your memories, depending on perspective. I guess my memories of Midway take a slant toward the romantic, because my perspective tends to make me remember the good and discount the bad.
There was some bad--"Preacher Bill" Coleman pastored Midway three different times as I was growing up. He left once on his own, after being "called" to a church in Byron. The other two times he was voted out.
Susie Hickman sang a "special" (referred to now as a "solo") almost weekly. I can't forget her, standing next to Annette Swatts, who played the piano when Susie sang. I'm not sure anyone else could have played for Susie, who always preceded her singing by saying, "Y'all pray for me as I try to sing (insert name of song here)." We prayed, as she tried. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
Melvin "Gomer" Peugh "led" the music. He was called Gomer because he looked like Gomer Pyle, he of Andy Griffith and U.S.M.C. fame. We had a "choir", which Gomer assembled each Sunday morning by saying, just before the service started, "Anybody who wants to sing in the choir today, come on up." People filled the choir loft, and whatever "choir song" they sang that day came from The Red Songbook/Not The Baptist Hymnal. My favorite was #14, "Jesus Is Coming Soon". I can still see Mama in the ladies' section, along with Sara Ruffin, Bernice Knight, Paula Hickman, and two rows of other women. Daddy was in the back, with Champ Ruffin, Walter Moore, and "Big John" Littlejohn, among others. When Big John died they had to custom-build a casket for him and it took eight men to carry it.
If I could only hear that choir one more time.
I begged Daddy to let me go with him before the morning service to the "prayer room" in the back of the church, which was really behind the front of the church. Baptists everywhere will understand where this is. I guess I was about eight or nine when he finally let me go with him.
The men in that small room--Preacher Bill, Daddy, Champ, James Smith, and others--dropped to their knees and prayed for souls to be saved in the service that morning, for the sick, and for each other. Preacher Bill slipped out as soon as he prayed, but the others would continue, sometimes even after the service started, then take their place in the choir or in the congregation when they were finished.
In the summertime the men would pray outside under the oak tree near the cemetary. We didn't have central air conditioning--or heat for that matter--when I was small. I could look out the open window and see those men praying, hearing their cries to God when there was a lull in the service.
If I could only hear them pray one more time.
We sang mostly from the Baptist Hymnal on Sunday morning, from #1 (Holy, Holy, Holy) through #188 (Amazing Grace) to #240 (Just As I Am) during the invitation, when Preacher Bill would call on you to Be Saved, Rededicate Your Life, or Just Come Pray If You Need To At This Altar Before The Lord. I'm not sure most churches even do any of that any more.
If I could only walk down that aisle one more time. And have Preacher Bill kneel with me next to that pulpit, put his arm around my shoulder, and pray with me.
We'd have Homecoming every year. The men would start Saturday afternoon, cooking deer meat and pork and chicken over coals fired up between two rows of cinder blocks on grills made of chain-link fence and steel poles. They'd stay out there all night, preparing the barbecue (a noun, NOT a verb) for the next day. Whatever Gospel group we had hired that year was usually there on Saturday night, spending the night on their bus before they sang the next day, all day, after Dinner On The Grounds. It was the only Sunday in the year besides Easter that there would be no Evening Service. The women would make homemade cakes, pies, breads, and their signature vegetable dishes, all of which would be cleaned out within minutes after the blessing.
If I could only spend the night cooking with those men, one more time.
It was the church folks got married and buried in. I watched my favorite Sunday School teacher (and first crush) Paula Hickman marry a sailor there. I got Saved there in April when I was seven years old. I fell on the edge of the altar after a Christmas play that same year and busted my head open, after which Dr. Henry sewed six stitches above my right eye as Daddy and Mama held my hands and women from the church talked about what a pretty job he was doing. I missed Dr. Henry's son (and my best friend) Ben Henry's funeral there in November 1971 because I was still in the hospital recovering from the wreck that killed him and almost killed me. I sat with my new wife Jennie, Mama, and my sister Susie as Preacher Bill wept through Daddy's funeral in 1979, then Champ Ruffin's (Mike's Daddy) two weeks later, the last service I attended there before Preacher Bill died.
We sang #188, Amazing Grace, along with the men and women I had watched as I grew up.
It was just like Sunday morning, only sad. But we sang like we meant it because we did.
If only I could hear it one more time.
Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound.