Our lives are shaped by many people, places, and events. For many mountain folk, family and church were and still are the two most important influences in their lives. This is certainly true for me.
For me, White Oak Mountain Union Baptist Church was home, a place where some of the kindest, most accepting, and most hospitable people I have ever known came to fellowship and worship God. It is because of them and that church that God’s love and grace are still at the center of who I am today.
White Oak was a small one room church lined with wooden pews that had been painted gray. Through the years, kids that just couldn’t sit as long as the services often held had taken various objects to draw pictures and scratch their names in that gray paint. There were no cushions on the pews, and they could get pretty hard as the services drew out. In the middle of the room stood a coal stove that was used to heat the church in the winter. Unless you were sitting pretty close to that stove, though, you didn’t get any too warm! In the summer, the stove stood cold, and windows were opened all over the church to try to catch a cross breeze. Summer in the mountains is usually not too hot, but if that’s the only hot you know, it can feel pretty miserable, so there were always handheld fans flapping back and forth as fast as the hands that held them could move.
The altar and pulpit were in the front of the church, and as many as five of six preachers would sit up there when I was a young child. None of those preachers had been to college, and none had had any religion or divinity courses, but they all knew the King James Bible (the only acceptable Bible there was) inside out. They could quote scriptures and put them together as well as anyone I’ve ever heard stand in a pulpit.
You always wore your best to church whether that be a new pair of overalls as Granddad and several of the other men wore or a dress you had bought or made just to wear to church as MommyBlanche did. Wearing your best for me as a young child meant dresses and panties with stiff lacy ruffles on them. I hated those panties, so much so in fact, that I would often pull them off before we left for church. I think maybe that worked one time. I would like to report that Mom realized ruffled panties were not my thing and never made me wear them again, but alas, that was not the case. She still made me wear them, and just to make sure I didn’t try to sneak out of the house bare-bottomed, she always checked to see that I still had them on just before we left.
Church always started with singing three hymns. Having a song leader who could pitch the hymns right and stay on key was important because Mountain Union Baptists did not use any form of musical instruments. Daddy was our song leader, and he did have a good voice. I can still see him sitting on the left corner of the front bench to the left of the pulpit. He would always clear his throat and hum a note before he started the hymn off. Daddy didn’t read music, but he had a good ear, and he seldom got that first note wrong. If he did, we would just stop, and he would start us again in a little different key.
Even though I didn’t get Daddy’s good voice (I took after Mom in that way, and I will let you infer what you will from that!), I loved singing those hymns better than almost anything else I can think of. We would occasionally sing a slower one like Precious Memories or The Old Rugged Cross or Farther Along, but Daddy liked hymns that moved along, and so did I. For such a small church, we also had several others who could sing quite well. One of Mom’s cousins had (and still does) one of the best bass voices I have ever heard. So, Daddy also liked to sing hymns that had bass and alto parts. So did I. Some of his and my favorites were Come and Dine, Where the Soul of Man Never Dies, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Just Over in the Glory Land, When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, What a Savior, and I could go on and on. To this day, I remember most of the words to these hymns.
After the hymns, one of the preachers would “open up”. That simply meant he didn’t usually preach. He would choose a scripture to read and lead the congregation in prayer. As he started the prayer, some, but not all, would get down on their knees, and some would join in, praying out loud, thanking God for His blessings in our lives and praying for our families, the sick, those with other troubles, and especially for the sinner. My family certainly felt all those things but preferred to pray silently which was just fine as well. Prayer could last for several minutes, and then, slowly, one by one, those praying aloud would go silent until only the preacher leading prayer was left. He would then close the prayer by asking “all these things in Jesus’ name, Amen”. Prayer was a touching communal experience that bound us together.
After scripture and pray, the preacher who felt led would rise to deliver the message. Sometimes, it took a bit to narrow down who that person would be; no one wanted to step in front of someone else lest he have something tugging at his heart to preach on.
Just as we all have different ways of doing things, each preacher had his own way of delivering the message. Most of the time, more scripture was read, but from there, the delivery was varied. Some were fire and brimstone, and some were grace and love, and others fell somewhere in between. Some were Bible-raising, pulpit-slapping and loud. Some jumped up and down, and clapped their hands as the Spirit filled them while they preached. Some left the pulpit and walked up and down through the church, speaking almost individually to those present. And some were calm and quiet as they put into words what God had put into their hearts. But regardless of how each preacher delivered God’s Word to us, they all did so with a love for God and for us that ran deep and with a sincere hope that all in this world would surrender their hearts and souls to Jesus Christ who paid the ultimate price for our redemption.
As the service came to an end, we would sing one last hymn. Then the floor was always opened to anyone who had anything on his or her heart to say. Each one who did was listened to with respect and love. Finally, when all was quiet, someone would be called on to dismiss us in prayer. White Oak Church was found to be “in peace and love, all who were present”. And, I promise you, that was really true.
The little church I called home all those years ago sets vacant now, another reminder that life is lived bigger and faster now than it was then. The doors closed for the last time not too very long after Mom died. How I wish I could make it live again so that I could be there just one more time sitting between Mom and my sister, singing the hymns led by my Daddy, and listening to one of the pastors bring the message. While that can never be, I do know that I will have that privilege again someday when I, too, pass from this life into the next.
**These are my childhood memories of growing up in Appalachia. They are true but also subject to the normal foibles of the mind.