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?”
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.
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?”
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.