Sister Jean takes the pulpit. She is ninety-one. She was the first ordained female in the Alabama-West Florida Methodist Conference. This woman is a history book wearing pearls and pumps.

Hartford First United Methodist Church. Small church. Small town. One barbershop on the square. One insurance place. A Chinese restaurant.

In the church entrance, I am greeted by eight white-haired men who all take the time to learn my name. Then, we males dispense with playing nice and start talking about last night’s game.

These are old men who wear University of Alabama belts, War Eagle shirts, or Troy University lapel pins, with khakis. These are Methodists.

Something I know about Methodists: they don’t pronounce “amens” the same way Southern Baptists do.

A Methodist says “AH-men.” You can hear this at the end of their hymns. There is a long “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh-meennnnnnnnn” in the final measure.

A deepwater Baptist, wouldn’t “AH-men” if our piano was on fire. We are of the “AY-men” persuasion. Long “A.” We shout our “AY-mens.” Sometimes right at the preacher.

I sit in the center of the small sanctuary. The pews are oak, with history in them. This building was built in 1921, and feels it. Tall windows adorn pure white walls. Sun shoots through colored glass and falls upon churchgoers like halos.

The service is straightforward:

A hymn. A scripture. “AH-men.” Another hymn. A few more words. Another “AH-men.”

“Our town is shrinking,” one man told me before service. “With every funeral, another little piece goes away, but we love our town. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it just wonderful?”

Yeah.

Next: organ music. An older woman plays. She moves her feet, hands, and eyeballs at the same time. Modern people forget how hard it is to play the organ. It’s a dying art.

I am sitting next to Mister Frank. He is aged, with liver spots, and hearing aids. I can hear Mister Frank’s weak voice sing “The Doxology” and recite the Apostle’s Creed. He says the Lord’s Prayer with his eyes closed.

We sit.

Sister Jean takes the pulpit. She is ninety-one. She was the first ordained female in the Alabama-West Florida Methodist Conference. This woman is a history book wearing pearls and pumps.

“Ain’t she wonderful?” a woman in the congregation whispers to me. “Ain’t she just wonderful?”

Yes.

Prayer requests are offered. Small-town people mention family, friends, neighbors in need. Someone is suffering from cancer. Skin disease. Diabetes. Heart attack. Stroke. Broken spine.

Reverend Jean wants to pray for the sick and weary. But the sick and weary aren’t here. So, she invites others to stand in for those cannot be with us.

Eight people rise. They approach the altar. This morning, these represent those who hurt. Those who are ill. Those who lie in hospital beds and are subjected to lethal doses of daytime television.

Those who feel forgotten.

And here, in the heart of an American town, a ninety-one-year-old clergywoman places her thumb over the mouth of an oil bottle. She smears oil on foreheads. She says a prayer in the native tongue of Old Alabama.

“We pray for miracles,” she begins.

And if there is a dry eye in the house, it’s probably made of glass.

She ends with “AH-men.”

Brother Andy preaches. His sermon requires no microphone. His words are like poetry.

The first time I came to Hartford, I was invited to speak at the library, just up the street. It was in a room the size of a water closet. Brother Andy and his wife were there. They shook my hand, hugged my neck, and said, “We love you.” And I believed them.

When he preaches, I still believe it.

And I am in the age of my grandparents. It’s all here. In this room. Bells, organs, Sunday school rooms. People. Children. Elders.

And memories of those before us. Old men who changed their own oil, whittled sticks, and sang with the radio. Women who formed quilting circles, played dominoes, and remembered what Coca-Cola tasted like before the recipe changed.

The sermon finishes. A prayer. We sing.

And the ball game is over. People stand, they stretch. They shake hands. Everyone hugs necks.

I receive eleven invites to lunch at Mom’s Kitchen, nine invites to Ketchem’s meat and three joint.

Before I leave, I ask Brother Andy if he would let me steal a Bible from the back of a pew. I’m sentimental.

“It’s all yours,” he says.

It’s an old book with a faded cover. It’s been sitting in this pew for generations. When I hold it, it feels heavy. The gold writing on the spine reads: “Cokesbury.”

Reverend Jean is about to leave for lunch. She is frail, holding someone’s arm for support. She stops. She is admiring the white walls of this old room, the stained glass, and the silence.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she says to me. “Isn’t it all just so wonderful?”

It really is.

Ah-men.

29 comments

  1. Judy Kate - September 17, 2018 6:14 am

    AY-men, Sean. AY-men.

    Reply
    • Grace slagle - November 13, 2018 8:10 am

      Sean did you accept an invite to Ketchums ??? If so . Can you give it a rating? Been wanting to go there and haven’t got around to it. Life happens , but I always make time to read your posts. I enjoy and look forward to reading them each day.

      Reply
  2. Marylin Anderson - September 17, 2018 7:24 am

    My son-in-law is a Lutheran minister. When they visited our Baptist church, one of my grandsons corrected his Sunday School teacher when she said Ay-men. He told her it was Ah-men. Yep, that’s how Lutherans pronounce it. Thanks, Sean, We’re planning to see you next month in Boaz, Alabama after the Glover family reunion in Texasville.

    Reply
  3. Terri C Boykin - September 17, 2018 10:10 am

    I’m in the AY-men group myself. And Sean, your written words are like poetry to my soul. Comfort food. I just love you man.

    Reply
  4. Norm - September 17, 2018 11:18 am

    Ah-men Brother Sean.

    Reply
  5. Charlotte Hartley - September 17, 2018 11:42 am

    That was my grandparents’ church, my father preached there, and my sister in law was once the choir directory. The house my grandparents lived in is right across the street. I practiced walking down the aisle to get married many a time while my grandmother fixed the juice and bread for communion. Nothing delighted her more than when they moved in from the country and bought that house right across from her church. I love that place!

    Reply
  6. LYNDA - September 17, 2018 12:33 pm

    Oh Sean, your words so remind me of my old village in south Wales and the little plain Methodist chapel where I spent so many Sundays on hard pews, with elderly ministers and an even older lady playing the organ. When I left the area chapel numbers were in decline but I am pleased to find on visits home that comfy seats have been installed, a decent heating system instead of the old cast iron stove, and a nice red carpet on the old wooden floors, and numbers have increased again. I got married in that old style chapel and was so pleased to do so.Aah-men.

    Reply
  7. Louise - September 17, 2018 12:33 pm

    Thank you for touching my heart with your words. I was raised “Ah-men,” now I’m “Ay-men” and I’m confident our Heavenly Father hears them both.

    Reply
  8. Nancy Thomaston Rogers - September 17, 2018 1:08 pm

    To me, there is nothing more wonderful than praising the Lord in one of our older, historic churches. I did it myself yesterday for a homecoming service. It doesn’t matter whether you say it ah-men or ay-men, it is still “just wonderful.”

    Reply
    • Phyllis Dickinson - September 17, 2018 1:28 pm

      My husband, John Dickinson, and she had many such worship experiences together. We loved her dearly. She is truly a great woman of God! May she continue in the spreading of the Gospel until God calls her home. ✝️

      Reply
  9. karen peters - September 17, 2018 1:20 pm

    In years past, the Methodist churches all had a brown Cokesbury song book in the pew racks along with the thicker Methodist Hymnal. But I don’t remember ever seeing a Cokesbury Bible. We would mostly use the big hymnal Sunday mornings with organ music, and the Cokesbury would be used at Sunday School, evening services or revivals, accompanied by a piano. I still love the Fanny Crosby songs with their encouraging messages.

    Reply
    • lavenderlady - September 17, 2018 3:51 pm

      I picked up on that too. My brother, a lay minister in a small country Methodist church, let me bring one of the Cokesbury song books home with me. The songs bring back such wonderful memories of my childhood and the time we spent in fellowship.

      Reply
  10. Dric - September 17, 2018 1:23 pm

    My aunt and cousins go to Hartford First I did my uncle’s funeral there it is a great church with great people

    Reply
  11. judemiller1 - September 17, 2018 1:29 pm

    There must be a difference in Southern and Northern Methodists, because up here, we’ve always said, “Ay-Men”–at the end of a hymn or a prayer, or even now, after the choir sings their anthem or sometimes even after the Preacher says something good. Quietly off course. No shouting in a Methodist Church.

    Reply
  12. Steven - September 17, 2018 1:47 pm

    I was born in Hartford. Probably not many of us left. Everyone now goes to Geneva or Enterprise or Dothan. The hospital was an old Second Empire-style hotel. It is long gone. Not too long ago my mother sent me a photo of it that she found in a box of family remembrances. I’ve never lived in Hartford but there is a place just on the outskirts of town where lots of us have gathered – to rest and wait for what is next. I’ll probably join them when it’s my turn. Good to be surrounded by family.

    Reply
  13. Greg Breed - September 17, 2018 1:50 pm

    Hi Sean! You have a gift for writing. Just curious, does your wife ever go with you on these trips that you write about? It would be good to hear about that as well.

    Thanks,
    Greg

    Reply
  14. Phillip Saunders - September 17, 2018 1:54 pm

    You are soooo right, Sean, It is wonderful. As a Methodist who grew up worshiping in a fine large church and worships in another great one now, I have been fortunate to worship in those small churches like Hartford UMC on rare occasions. They are so special. BTW, I say Ay-men.

    Reply
  15. Jan - September 17, 2018 2:32 pm

    Every Methodist bone in my body is screaming Ah-men! I can relate – all 71 of my years have been spent in Pinson UMC and I expect to be here till I die. Small towns are special places!

    Reply
  16. MermaidGrammy - September 17, 2018 3:58 pm

    I knew your minister and his wife when they were dating and then when they had children and suffered an enormous heartbreak no parent should. They are wonderful people – from wonderful people – and I am glad you appreciate Andy and Patricia. You really got it!!

    Reply
  17. Darrell Dame - September 17, 2018 4:00 pm

    I love Hartford, I move there in 2000, only stayed 2 years but it was an experience. I was in that barber shop on the square when a car pulled in parked at the curb. I was in the chair and he had been cutting for a while. He quit went out to the car and visited for a while, then came back finished my haircut . It was an enjoyable experience .

    Reply
  18. Grace - September 17, 2018 6:22 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  19. Sydney Lock Caldwell - September 17, 2018 8:16 pm

    My dad, Dr. J. Syd Lock, served Hartford FUMC when I was in elementary school, the late 50’s and early 60’s. We were there when the church caught on fire. In those days, we went to VBS at every church. They were all at different weeks just so we could do that. My first BFF was in Hartford. We left there and moved to a brand new UMC in Mobile, Kingswood UMC. But, we never forgot Hartford.

    Reply
  20. Gene Brannon - September 17, 2018 9:37 pm

    Very good picture painted of the small town church and the comfort it provides it members. Looking forward to having you visit again.

    Reply
  21. Jackie Darnell - September 18, 2018 3:16 am

    I love old churches and of couirse old people since my wife is one! Just so she doesn’t think I am mean, we are about the same age.

    Reply
  22. Stuart - September 18, 2018 3:33 am

    It sounds like there is a lot of love for tradition. Did anyone remember to say anything about Jesus?
    Some verses come to mind from the KJV:
    *1 Cor 14:34-35 (I didn’t write this, merely bringing attention to it.)
    *PS 111:9 (Reverend is His name). This name belongs to no man….or woman.

    Reply
  23. Andy Gartman - September 18, 2018 3:57 pm

    Thank you for your eloquent, kind words Sean. I’m glad we bumped into one another back in that sardine can sized room at the library. Somehow that led to you and Jamie worshiping with the Hartford First UMC Sunday. God is good. All the time. Isn’t it wonderful? Ah-men.

    Your preacher buddy

    Reply
  24. Dell - September 18, 2018 6:54 pm

    I, too, have a Cokesbury! Thanks for the memories. Born a Baptist, converted to Methodist. I just love the Lord. AH MENNNN

    Reply
  25. Julia - September 18, 2018 8:42 pm

    That is my hometown church! I was there last at Christmas. My dad, now 91, has been unable to attend for months now. I know all of those good people you met.
    It is beautiful church. Thank you for this story!
    Julial

    Reply
  26. Marian Hansen - September 19, 2018 3:15 pm

    Reminds me of my hometown church in the north when I was a girl as you see I am 94 and going strong at this time. God bless all those old people. God love them.

    Reply

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