HEARERS OF THE WORD: Small, country churches are simply essential

Along either side of old Highway 78 the houses were illuminated with the warm, yellow glow of reading lamps. The random flicker of television sets danced against the walls of family rooms where people were fixing their plates and settling in for supper.
The pastor and his son drove into the empty parking lot and parked their truck up against the building.
The wind rose in random gusts that seemed to come from no particular direction, sweeping clusters of dried oak and maple leaves across the asphalt with a chaotic fury that was almost violent.
“Mr. Holley?” the pastor said, extending his large hand and gesturing toward the building.
“Thank you for meeting me,” I said. “I know you have a musical to attend.”
He assured me it was no bother, then unlocked the church and ran a hand through his thick, salt-and-pepper hair.
He wore a modest, houndstooth sports coat and jeans, and on his feet a pair of round-toed leather cowboy boots. The combined effect made him look like one of the gentleman horse trainers in the Kentucky Derby.
“We have about 500 members on the books,” he said, posing patiently for my pictures, a “mug” I’d need to accompany an upcoming story for which he’d commented.
I asked him about his daughter, a lovely, intelligent girl with a tremendous heart who’d recently come back from missionary service in Africa. I’d interviewed her months earlier for a story.
“She’s fine, just fine,” the pastor said, in the genuine, simple way country people respond to such inquiries.
Standing in the church’s foyer, we could see a thin mist of rain blowing in under the lights, drifting through the skeletal branches of the trees.
We spoke of church life – politics, attendance, the challenges of making one’s living under the broad umbrella of “religion.”
The pastor told me he’d never been happier at a church, that he loved his congregation and the community, and I absolutely believed him.
We were waiting on another person, somebody he hardly knew, but his child’s music recital was about to start and he had to go.
“Just turn out the lights and pull the door to when you leave,” he said, entrusting his church to a virtual stranger without the slightest hesitation.
“I’ll be back by in a little while to lock up.”
In the darkness I sneaked a peek at his church. It was a simple floor plan, almost Spartan, with chairs for pews, as well as a clear glass pulpit and a full-immersion baptistery.
To the right of the pulpit was a synthetic magnolia tree, positioned there like a tasteful, subtle reminder of the heritage of southern churches.
Against the back wall was a large banner, depicting shadowy African figures joining hands over a globe. Underneath was a simple admonition: “Pray.”
A lapel mic and a battery lay on the first row of seats, and I wondered for a moment what it must be like to stand before a congregation each week and preach.
As I turned out the lights and pulled the door shut, I though of something I’d said to the minister before he left.
“Small, country churches are the backbone of our readership,” I told him “You’re good people to deal with, and we sure appreciate it.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal