American Church

The tables sit loaded with church food. Casserole dishes. The kind of fare that requires a visit to the confessional after eating.

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?”

No sir.

“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.”

Home.

22 comments

  1. Catherine - August 12, 2017 1:54 pm

    Brilliant Sean. These old country churches are fading fast. The one I grew up in is like home and its people are still my family.

    Reply
  2. Laura Young - August 12, 2017 1:57 pm

    I love country churches. My grandparents (on Mother’s side) are buried in the cemetery next to one outside Ozark. I remember visiting there in summers as a girl. The circuit preacher came once a month to preach but services were held whether he was there or not. Though I was just visiting a week or two, I sang in choir with my Mother’s baby sister (an aunt who was 5 months younger than me- I can imagine Mother and Grandmother pregnant at same time, sharing laughter over swollen bellies). I can recall having family reunions at that fellowship hall before us teenagers would beg to use the family car to drive down to the creek or to the fire tower for some fun. Great memories. By the way, no one’s dressing or chicken dumplings could surpass my grandmother’s or later my Mother’s. (“Just saying”, as the young folks say).

    Reply
  3. Donna Holifield - August 12, 2017 2:21 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  4. MJ hurley - August 12, 2017 2:49 pm

    These memories promote me to remind your readers, Sean, who have relatives/ancestors buried in these small country cemeteries…PLEASE make an annual donation to their “cemetery fund”. Cutting grass and pulling weeds cost money!

    Reply
  5. Marisa Franca @ All Our Way - August 12, 2017 2:54 pm

    Great post — but they all are. A place where all can gather and give thanks — that is a beautiful church. The TV grand stages are just that — performers performing. I was baptized a Catholic and I miss the old churches. Trying to modernize!! Why fix something that’s not broken? Christ comes to where we are gathered in his name. That’s all that’s necessary.

    Reply
  6. Melodie - August 12, 2017 2:57 pm

    Absolutely beautiful. I could envision the basement, every person, Father Eric, and even all of the potato casseroles. I was raised in a town of nearly 200 folk. We had our little country Baptist church, with a small congregation, yet packed the house. Folks were Baptized in the lake. One of my fondest memories, is that it was pretty warm in the summertime, no air conditioning, and we used what I call, Jesus fans. I loved the cardboard fans, attached to what resembled a big popsicle stick, with a picture of Jesus on it. Oh, the good old days. Thank you Sean for such inspiring stories. I can hardly wait for the next one! 🙂

    Reply
    • Judy Miller - August 12, 2017 4:31 pm

      Oh Melodie–I had forgotten all about the Jesus fans!!! We Methodist’s had them too. 🙂

      Reply
      • Melodie - August 13, 2017 3:21 pm

        Yes, great memories, huh, Judy Miller? 🙂

        Reply
  7. Wendy - August 12, 2017 3:26 pm

    Sean, you could have been writing about my father’s home church. It’s Mt. Hermon Methodist…some 9-10 miles outside Greensboro, AL. So many similarities! My paternal grandparents are buried in the cemetery behind the church building.

    Reply
  8. Judy Miller - August 12, 2017 4:29 pm

    Sounds just like the church I grew up in. Although now, an addition has been added with a really nice, big, poured cement basement. But–if you walk off to the side, back behind the kitchen, there is the original basement under the church and the low ceiling and the little rooms that used to hold our Sunday School classes. Every now and then, I like to duck my head and walk back in there.

    Reply
  9. Jack Quanstrum - August 12, 2017 9:36 pm

    Wonderful description of the church and the people. All the folks where so special but down to earth. The church was a super small slice of heaven. I had never been there. But felt right at home. Like this was my home. I can’t ever remember having that feeling in a place that I had been at for the first time. To me it was ordained by God for you and your wife to be there as well each person that attended. I have kind of a loud laugh and it the very first time I was not criticized for it. In indignant looks or someone being verbally punitive towards me. Heck my ex-wife who I am friends with and youngest daughter hate my laugh and tell me I should not laugh so loud. So, I guess what I am trying to say is I felt perfect peace, harmony, enlightened, thrilled and the closest experience of not really being in my body. So I have a strong belief that God allowed me to taste a slice of Heaven. Thank you Sean, Jamie and the folks at Saint Katherines in Chelsea last thrusday. Truly miraculous for me. The feeling is still with me today, three days later. Love all you folks, you all are very, very special! Shalom!

    Reply
    • Teresa McLarty - August 12, 2017 9:47 pm

      Jack Quanstrum– We were happy to have you at St Catherine’s!! And by the way….we enjoyed your laugh almost as much as Sean’s talk!! You’re welcome back any time!!

      Reply
    • Pam Kimball - August 14, 2017 4:21 pm

      We are so happy you visited us, Jack – come back any time, we’d love to see you again! By the way, your wonderful laugh is captured on the audio recording, and we LOVE it!

      Reply
      • Jack Quanstrum - August 15, 2017 5:00 pm

        Thank you! I will definitely visit you all in the future. Shalom!

        Reply
  10. Susan Whitehurst - August 12, 2017 10:21 pm

    Hello Sean,
    I was raised Baptist, but my husband was raised episcopal. For years, we compromised and attended the local methodist church and I thought it was a good fit. But, when I heard there was a brand new start up episcopal church coming to Chelsea, I knew he would want to go. I had only ever been to an episcopal church once before, and I wasn’t sure my wardrobe or my knees were up for it. But, we went. I watched the lady in front of me to know when to do what. It was Easter time and Easter services were throughout that week. It changed me. The night that the altar was stripped bare, I felt in my heart for the first time, the pain our Lord endured for my sins. So, Saint Catherines is my church, these people are my people. I’ve painted those rocks, swept the wood floors, polished the silver, and cried and laughed in this small, old, creaky, leaky place. This is where I came to pray when I found out I had breast cancer. This is where I cried when my mother was dying. And this is where I met God face to face.

    Thank you for recognizing that nothing is small when God takes charge.

    Your friend,
    Susan

    Reply
    • Jack Quanstrum - August 15, 2017 5:03 pm

      Wow! what a story. It touched my heart. Thank you for sharing it. Peace be with you!

      Reply
      • Susan Whitehurst - August 15, 2017 9:17 pm

        And also with you! I hope to meet you at Saint Catherines, Jack!

        Reply
  11. Pamela McEachern - August 12, 2017 10:29 pm

    Yes, the South is the bible-belt, but it’s so much more. I am a native Alabamiam and anytime I lived outside the state I sincerely missed this beautiful place that is Home. Welcome and please come back to see us.

    Reply
  12. Jeri King - August 13, 2017 3:31 am

    Inspiring! That’s the only word that comes to mind and still feels inadequate to describe the joy in my heart and tears in my eyes that burst forward reading this. Thank you so much for sharing. Most of all I am grateful to God that, thru you, I was reminded that there is good still in the world.

    Reply
  13. Peg - August 13, 2017 4:46 pm

    AMEN!

    Reply
  14. Sandra - August 13, 2017 9:45 pm

    This made me cry for a long ago time .

    Reply
  15. Sharon - August 16, 2017 4:50 pm

    Oh, Sean,
    Would you ever consider coming out West?
    Southwest? We’ve got stories here too.
    I grew up in a little Baptist church in Denver CO. Parents moved from small town Iowa when my mother was 40 for my sister’s asthma and knew a small church would make it home. Parents moved once while in Denver 50 years attending a different small church they could walk to. But truth is, some of those first church friends were at Mom’s funeral, age 90. Church folks were THE family they had in CO.
    I’ve lived in Arizona 30 years now. Same church than CO, some bigger, began to decline. Now two TV screens in the sanctuary, Lucite box around the drum set and the organ hasn’t been played in over 3 years. We love it.
    I have a longtime church family too, adult class called Faithbuilders on Sunday before worship, Ladybugs Bible study, 7:30am on Thursday mornings. Seniors that have tons of fun together are appropriately named Saguaros…Look that one up!
    Best part about the changes? The people I DON’T know that are now coming! The family is growing again.
    Come out WEST, really, the Faithbuilders and Ladybugs will welcome you. We have a guest room, private bath included. No pool in my backyard, but we’ve got “family” that would gladly offer a dip. The chilies, enchiladas, and nachos are probably better than any BBQ we could offer you!

    Reply

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