When I was growing up in East Tennessee, my family wasn’t a regular church-going family. We were more special-occasion attendees, but my faith formed and grew through three different churches—and through many kind people that God used in sometimes the simplest of ways.
Gray United Methodist Church
The Methodist church in Gray is the first church of my memories. This is the church where a flower was placed on the altar commemorating my birth—I still have the church bulletin documenting this in a scrapbook somewhere. I remember going to church here with my Grandmother Hale as a young girl and attending Vacation Bible School as well as Easter egg hunts and the like. I still remember many of the people—many of whom have since passed away—who were regulars. Numerous church characters come to life in my memories—one being a kind and gentle older lady named Ms. Nell, who always made my siblings and me feel welcome in Sunday school.
Gray United Methodist Church is where my mother was a lifelong member. She never changed her membership, even when she attended another church more often. This was her home church. It was so fitting for us to have her funeral service at GUMC in 2012. If I recall correctly, the night of her funeral, a wedding rehearsal was taking place in the main sanctuary, but we were able to have the Friday-evening service in the old sanctuary—which was perfect because that had been the main sanctuary when Mom and Grandmother Hale attended, and when I was child. When Mom passed away, the church people were very kind to our family. The ladies of the church sent an enormous amount of food over to my sister’s house, where the family had gathered. Mom, my grandparents and my great-grandparents are buried in the cemetery just up from the church. For these and for many reasons, this church will always be special to our family.
Boones Creek Baptist Church
As a little girl I remember waiting, at the bottom of our steep driveway, for Shirley to pick me up and take me to Boones Creek Baptist Church. Shirley lived around the corner from us, and she drove an old white car—a 1973 Mercury Cougar XR7. I remember how her son, Greg, who was two years older than me, would lean forward in the front passenger seat so I could climb in the back. Shirley was more than happy to give me—and my siblings when they came, too—a ride to church, though she preferred to meet us by the road, as she seemed intimidated by our driveway, which not only was steep, but also had a sharp curve to it.
I was baptized in that Baptist church, and I remember Mom talking to me beforehand, wanting to ensure that I knew what it meant and that I didn’t just “go forward during the altar call” because other people did. Even as an elementary-school student, I did realize the importance and significance of my decision—and choosing to follow Christ is the most important decision I’ve ever made.
Some of my fondest memories at Boones Creek Baptist Church are of VBS. To this day, when I drive by the church it’s hard not to picture myself in a herd of children lined up on the front steps, organized by age or grade, preparing to march in for the VBS opening each night. A few lucky kids were chosen to lead the way, carrying the Bible, the Christian flag and the American flag. I specifically remember resonating with a VBS lesson on the Parable of the Good Samaritan at this church. It is still a favorite. Of course, I can’t forget the cookies and Kool-Aid, the memory verses, and the special songs we’d sing at the end-of-the-week program.
There was also the time we Pierce kids participated in a Christmas program at Boones Creek Baptist. The program involved real candles, and my sister Robin’s hair caught fire! Thankfully, it was extinguished pretty quickly and she was OK—but I haven’t forgotten that experience—or that smell. What a night!
New Bethel Presbyterian Church
In middle school I found myself once again getting a ride to church, only this time it was with Glenna, the Avon lady, and she took my siblings and me to the Presbyterian church just a mile or so up the road from our house. Glenna and her husband had met my parents during their CB radio days. Her handle was “Mitzi Blue” (sp?), and her husband was “Irishman.” I think it wasn’t until after he passed away that she started attending New Bethel.
At New Bethel Presbyterian Church, my faith and knowledge of Jesus deepened through Sunday school, youth group meetings, and youth trips to destinations like the annual Gatlinburg Missions Conference and Fun In The Son, the summer youth conference where I met the hilarious pen pal who would eventually become my husband. Our youth director, Mark, who was in seminary at the time, was a insightful source of biblical teaching and encouragement during some awkward years. At one youth-group meeting, he demonstrated servant leadership with an old-fashioned foot-washing, and I perhaps learned more that day than in a month’s worth of Bible study. He has been a pastor for many years now, and my brother, sister and I had the wonderful opportunity to visit with him just a few months ago while vacationing in Virginia.
New Bethel is where I developed an appreciation for missions and for serving others. The church has supported me on mission trips—as well as my sister Cindy and family, who have been full-time missionaries for some 15 years. New Bethel is where, some 20 years ago, I was first introduced to Operation Christmas Child, the shoe box ministry of Samaritan’s Purse that changed my life. I eventually ended up working for the ministry and still pack shoe boxes every year—now with my own children. New Bethel was the venue for one of my bridal showers as well a baby shower for our first child. It is where I would have been married, had the sanctuary been just a smidge larger.
The New Bethel memories keep coming—winter skiing trips, the floral cross at Easter, summer car-wash fundraisers for youth-group activities, fall hayrides, family-night suppers, Christmas programs with a huge church-wide gift exchange afterward. Who can forget the paper treat bags given to all the children at Christmas—a common Appalachian tradition? They included fruit, a candy cane and maybe even, if we were lucky, a candy bar.
New Bethel is where I felt I truly belonged. It is where I learned what it means to belong to a church community, a circle of friends who share your faith, who mourn with you when you are grieving, and who rejoice with you when you are celebrating. The people I met there I count among some of the most genuine, sincere, humble, generous and kind (I could go on) that I have ever met. I still keep in touch with many of them, though it’s been quite a few years since I regularly attended New Bethel or lived in Tennessee.
I am grateful for these three churches—and the others I have attended since—which helped lay the foundation for my faith. The church truly is the people, and I have been blessed to have crossed paths with so many humble servants of the Lord—from my grandmother and mom who made sure we made it to VBS … to the sweet women who offered me rides to Sunday school … to all of the fellow church members who included my family and me in so many events. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the dedicated pastors, under whose teaching I have gained a greater understanding of Scripture and the love of Christ. I will close with a verse I memorized at one of these churches many years ago: “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1, KJV).