It’s a Sunday morning. I have just driven about 60 miles through the Georgia countryside. Tired barbed wire fences defining the boundaries for small herds of cows slowly making their way through the morning mist. Green pastures and tall pines that are as familiar to me as the back of my hand on the steering wheel.
I’m going home.
No disrespect to the place I have lived for the last 28 years, but Hampton is still like home to me. This is the town and the people who raised me. The school where I learned to chase pretty girls on the playground. The grocery store where I learned to shake hands with old men. The roads where I skinned my knees falling off my bike. The gas station where I put my lips to a cold Co-Cola bottle out of the ice box.
Today is homecoming at Berea Christian Church. I am drawn here by unseen forces that pull at me. I have been gone from here since I got married in 1978. I did not remain here, but this place has remained in me. I have roots here, and some of them run deep. Roots do not give me status or privilege. They simply fix in me a remembrance of who I am.
I am headed for the building that was built around 1970, but my first stop is the old building across town. It’s early enough that I’m the only one parked here. I pull up right out front and just sit in my truck for a few minutes. I don’t have to get out and go inside to see in my mind every square inch of this place. And, quite honestly, I’m not sure if I want to go inside because I know it has changed and I prefer to remember it as it was.
Berea has stood in this town since the mid-1800s. An old wooden white church building. Doors and windows that take a man back sixty years. A long history of fundamentally sound people of faith who worked the land and made time for remembering their own roots in a faith that has stood for centuries. I can see and feel the slanted wooden floor. The curved wooden pews. The oscillating fans on the side walls by the windows. The wine-colored rug runners down the aisle to the front. Matching wine-colored curtains either side of the baptistry.
I was baptized in this building in the summer of 1968. The Christian Church practices baptism by dunking. The “sprinkling” crowd was always suspect to us. I wonder if the old baptistry is still there or boarded over. It was a concrete box behind the front wall of the sanctuary. Cinder block steps and one galvanized water pipe that came through the wall with a brass spigot on the end.
I walked down the aisle on a Friday night of the summer revival, not long before my twelfth birthday. I was sure that the water must have been piped down to Hampton from somewhere above the Artic Circle. We didn’t have any of this circulating, heated sissy water you find in modern baptistries. If a young boy wanted to wash away his sins, he had to be fairly committed to his decision to step down in that water.
I drive back through town past the old train depot, now City Hall. Booger Mobley’s store, where we would ride our bikes to get a push-up sherbet ice cream or a Nehi grape, is now a pharmacy by a name unknown to me.
I park in the shade of the big Riverbirch trees near the back edge of the lot. In my mind there are a hundred old faces that greet me. A time when the women still wore dresses to church with pearl necklaces. The men wore suits and ties.
My mom made my suits back then and insisted that I polish my Sunday shoes. And because Dad made 8mm home movies of Easter Sundays, I can see a 17-year-old me with acne and hair down to my shoulders headed for the kitchen door.
I didn’t know it at the time, because teenagers don’t pay attention to details, but I have an old church program that says my dad was chairman of the building committee. I’m sure that’s why I helped with the painting, getting ready for opening Sunday. My buddy, Pete, reminds me over lunch today that I painted him on one of those work nights.
“Yeah,” he says. “You took a roller and painted me straight up my backside.” I have no recollection of any such heinous crime.
I am old enough now that coming home to Berea is different. Used to be that it didn’t feel like much had changed. Same faces. Same pews. Same preacher. Like coming home from college and your bedroom is exactly the same as you had left it. But there comes a time when you go home, and everything has changed. I’m not saying I’m grouchy about it. I’m just saying that time has done what it does with all things.
Use to be that I knew everyone here. Today there is maybe a couple dozen familiar folks. Miss Peggy is here. A preacher’s wife and recent widow. Mr. Vic was my preacher. He came to Berea in 1964. His son and I became fast friends and still keep up with each other from time to time. Miss Peggy played the piano and organ every Sunday.
I can still see their family standing up front in the old building singing special music. Huddled together like they were posing for an Olin Mills photo. Mr. Vic, Stephen, Vicki and Vanita. Miss Peggy at the keys.
Well, I’m feeling . . . feeling mighty fine.
I’ve got heaven . . . heaven on my mind.
It was a spiffy, toe-tapping tune. People complain that we don’t sing the old hymns anymore, and there is a lot less of How Great Thou Art than there used to be. But the church has always had a taste for modern music. Not every good song is written by John Wesley and Fanny J. Crosby.
On this morning, a young lady and her husband are standing up front at the microphone to talk about what Berea has meant to them. She is choked up with emotion. He confesses, “I was a mess when I started coming here as a teenager.” And they tell the story of how this church lifted them up and stood by them. It’s not until later that I realize that she is the daughter of a guy that was in the youth group with me.
Suddenly, I am aware that Berea has not changed at all. Not where it matters. The pews may be gone. The pulpit has moved. Oh, Lord! The congregation is different. But lives are still being impacted here. The God who made us is still at work.
A huge part of who I am is because of this little country church. And even though it may not be so country anymore, Berea is still here. She still stands as a testimony to a Greater Good.
And that’s exactly why I have come home.