Chelsea, Alabama—this church is small with a capital “S”. The fellowship hall is a basement with ceilings low enough to graze my hair. The walls are painted rocks.
“Dug out this basement my ownself,” says the eighty-four-year-old man. “When I’s younger. Lotta sweat.”
He’s attended this church all his life. Long before the town was called Chelsea.
The tables sit loaded with church food. Casserole dishes. The kind of fare that requires a visit to the confessional after eating.
I’m standing in line, trying to decide between six different kinds of potato casserole.
At my table, I meet Doctor Brent. “Used’a practice country medicine,” he says. “Mostly, we delivered babies out in the sticks. You ever deliver a baby?”
“It’s rock and roll, buddy,” he says. “The room looked like a hog-killing took place when we were done.”
One older woman adds, “My sister was born on our kitchen table.”
A few people nod.
I meet a man and woman in their mid-fifties. A nice-looking couple. He’s wearing a chef’s jacket, she’s in her Sunday best. They have a young daughter.
“I was in my fifties when I got pregnant,” says his wife. “We were in total shock. Didn’t think I could ever have a baby.”
Her husband says, “Some of my friends were like, ‘A baby? At your age? Oh no, what’re you gonna do?’
“But my buddies in the kitchen were high-fiving me, saying, ‘You da MAN!’”
I high-fived him.
Because he’s the man.
I sit a few chairs down from Father Eric. He’s tall. Soft-spoken. He used to be a teacher in a previous life. We have things in common. Once, he was a hardworking man with bills. Today, he’s a hardworking man with bills who wears a collar.
He’s been here since last January.
“This place is like nowhere I’ve been,” he says. “These people are a family. I mean a REAL family.”
Before the family eats, Father Eric stands and asks the blessing. People bow heads. Except me. I am looking around. Not because I’m feeling irreverent, but because I feel inspired.
This place. It’s about the size of a one-car garage. There are no microphones, no slide-projectors, no stage lights, no smoke machines, no coffee shops, no T-shirts, no trademarked bumper-sticker slogans, no Jumbo-Trons out front.
It has wood floors, and a church office in a single-wide trailer.
This is the kind of place your granddaddy got baptized in. Where your ancestors stood before a jury of their peers and promised to love another until death parted them.
The kind of place that once hired a boy to dig an entire basement with a shovel, just so folks would have a place to throw potlucks.
“Was born in that there house,” says the old man, pointing out the basement window. “Granny sold this land to the church, long, long time ago.”
We climb the narrow stairs. He holds the rail with both hands. When we reach the top, we are standing behind the organ.
The eighty-four-year-old is out of breath.
“This building ain’t a church,” he says. “It’s home.”