The Smallest Church in America sits in McIntosh County, Georgia, about forty minutes south of Savannah, just off Interstate Exit 67.
The ten-by-fifteen cinderblock structure is tucked in the deepwoods, nestled among miles of kudzu. There is a steel cross mounted on the roof. A flagpole out front clangs gently in a faint breeze.
I pull into the parking lot alongside a lone rusty truck with a camper shell. In the front passenger seat of the idling truck is a boy, clutching a stuffed animal.
The vehicle is loaded with junk. Lots of junk. And through the camper shell windows I can see a made-up mattress with some pillows. It looks like someone is living in this vehicle.
I wave to the boy. He waves back. He looks Latino, maybe four or five years old.
I approach the tiny church only to find someone seated inside. It’s a woman. Her head is in her hands. She must be the boy’s mother. I suddenly feel awkward about invading someone’s privacy so I turn to walk back to my vehicle and give her space.
But when the woman hears my feet make noise she shoots up from her seat. She quickly makes the Sign of the Cross in the doorway before leaving the building.
When we pass each other I can see she is Latina, like the kid, with delicate features, caramel skin, and midnight hair. I can also see that she is young. And she has a black eye.
I am no expert, but black eyes don’t usually appear without outside help.
“Hi,” I say to her.
The woman smiles nervously. She’s missing a front tooth, too. And I notice her bottom lip is split open.
“Hello,” she says with a heavy Spanish accent. “Sorry I take so long.”
“No hay bronca,” I say.
I learned this phrase from Alejandro, my former construction coworker and beer-swilling protege. The phrase is Mexican slang for “Ain’t no thang,” or “No problem.”
My response makes her smile because it’s not every day you hear a dorky redneck gringo slinging around Mexicano slang without a license.
Then she crawls into the vehicle with her son and gives me another weak smile. They leave the parking lot, crunching on gravel. I watch her tail lights disappear in the middle distance.
When I enter America’s tiniest sanctuary, the room is lit only by stained glass. The cinderblocks are cool to the touch even though it’s 94 outside. Upon the pulpit sits a five-inch-thick book of prayer requests and thousands of notes written by roadside visitors from around the nation.
But I never read these letters because sitting on top of the guestbook is a note handwritten that commandeers my attention. It must be hers.
And I feel my heart move sideways when I see this. Soon, I am sitting in a chair and find myself wrapped within the silence of this little house of prayer.
This shack was built in 1949 by a local service station owner named Mrs. Agnes Harper. Sister Agnes wanted her chapel to be a place where weary travelers could find rest, or shelter. The front door has never been locked, there is no key.
They say Agnes would often bring blankets to migrants who slept here, or food for the hungry. And she did this right up until the day she moved into her abiding mansion.
After Sister Agnes died, a Baptist minister named Reverend Ward took over tending the chapel. He would often find anonymous donations of clothing and dried goods left on the altar for the needy.
When the Rev died, all caretaking duties fell to Mrs. Effie Young, a salt-of-the-earth lady who reportedly “brought many a sandwich to homeless drifters.” After she retired, the baton was passed to Patrick, her son, a local truck driver.
For 72 years this one room shack has been a beacon in the Georgia hinterlands. And even when the church burnt down in 2015, after some joker indulged in a little arson, the church just wouldn’t go away.
Because you can’t kill a place like this.
Only days after the fire this chapel was already being reconstructed solely by donations. Antioch Baptist in Savannah donated the 70-some-year-old oak pulpit. The stained glass windows were created by Robin Schweitzer of Waynesboro. Ace Hardware of Eulonia donated the framing lumber.
Thousands of travelers visit the church annually. People still leave food and clothing. They also leave mementos—I found several watches, earrings, trinkets, and rosary beads.
Hundreds of thousands have left prayer requests over the years. Maybe millions. And this little piece of paper I’m looking at is only one such request.
Which is why I spend a few minutes in silence. I am speaking to the ceiling, hoping the ceiling can hear me. Hoping the words of a young woman’s prayer are drifting skyward. Hoping that help is already on the way.
Before I leave the chapel, I cross myself. I’m not Catholic; I’m not even particularly religious. But I hope this small gesture will improve a poor gringo’s chances of being heard. For my prayer is simple.
Protect them, Lord. Por favor.