Sunday, September 28, 2014

We Found a Home

At a fork of a lonely road in Carroll County, Mississippi, sits a small, nondescript, white, wood-frame building. Despite its lack of size and grandeur, it has a picture postcard quality nestled as it is against the backdrop of huge oak trees where squirrels eat acorns and deer slip through the shadows unseen. The yard is always freshly manicured without a trace of grass clippings or mower lines or trash. Across the road lies a cemetery on the top of a football shaped hill. Sunday morning past, my wife crossed the road and peered over the chain link fence at the tombstones and yelled back at me, "There's Danny Jackson's grave." She called out several other names of people we had known but had no idea their bodies are entombed here.
Centerville Baptist Church
They, whoever they were, named it Centerville Baptist Church about 115 years ago. We almost never made our initial visit. Earlier, I wrote about how my wife and I, after twenty-three years and two months, closed our little church in Moorhead and found ourselves ecclesiastically homeless. (I posted on this: "Transitions," May 28, 2014.) Someone asked why we didn't just go back to the Greenwood Church of God from which we came when we took the Moorhead Church. There is more than one answer to that question, but the chief one is it's sort of like Momma's house. I like to visit; now I even spend some nights there caring for Mom in her poor health. But 422 West Harding ceased to be home many years ago. Just like Momma's house, our "home church" has ceased to be where we live. We grew up and left the nest long ago. It is just not where we belong now. We feel that; we know it.

So we found ourselves on a quest for a place to worship, a place to feel at home while we rested and recovered from our labors and the pain of being shunned by a denomination we served faithfully for over two decades. I had a couple of criteria when we started our search. I wanted out of the Delta, and since there were no Churches of God close enough to attend, I thought the next best thing was the Baptist.

Since I know a few people who aren't from around here read this blog (thank you), a brief geography lesson might be in order. The Delta, where Greenwood lies and Penny and I live, is a crescent-shaped strip of land that lies west and east of the Mississippi River and borders the Loess Bluffs on its east. It runs from just below Memphis, Tennessee south to the town of Vicksburg, that city lay siege to by Ulysses S. Grant and surrendered to him on July 4th, 1863. As a result, the fourth of July was not celebrated there until the 1970s. The land here is pancake flat, and besides being renowned for its agriculture, the area has been scandalized and immortalized by numerous books, one of which calls it, "The most Southern place on earth" (the actual title of a book by James Cobb, published in 1994).

Besides its geography, it is also historically and culturally unique. The Delta has a strange ability to grow cotton, produce mosquitoes, and be the home of people with a certain mindset. Everyone here is a genius. Really. They, we, know everything and we have known it for a long time. Everyone in the Delta immediately sees the negative side of any issue or idea and anyone who disagrees with us is a dang fool and better get ready to fight or shut up one. And everyone in the Delta is "high class" and better than everyone else. No joke. You have to experience the class consciousness of this place to understand how truly stupid people can be. I didn't want anything more to do with that mindset if I could avoid it. I can't always avoid it, but I don't have to go to church with it.

The hills and Carroll County lie only a few miles from Greenwood and the Delta but is light years from the flat land in terms of people and attitudes. The biggest difference is that people are just people, and I like people, but I don't like everything about people. The pride and pretentiousness of the Delta is surprisingly absent from people who populate Carroll County just a few miles away.

So our search for a church started with the Coila Baptist Church in the little hamlet of the same name. I also wrote of this experience (See "I Liked That," May 29, 2014.)  and was especially impressed with the three-legged dog who hung out at the church. The distance was a little farther than we wanted to drive, but we liked it. Next we went to the tiny New Shiloah Baptist Church which is located on the same road my wife's family and mine own land on. We went once. It was nice, but we wanted to look some more. Mount Olive Baptist was our next visit, and we went there two times. It had a lot to recommend it. The distance was better but still a little far. It had a fair number of people but was not too large. Then we went to Hill View. It was more contemporary in its worship. Unfortunatley the pastor was gone the Sunday we stopped by and when they sent us a form letter that visitors obviously get, it was addressed to someone other than us. What?!

I had one more church on my list, Centerville. My wife didn't really want to go. She said, "You know at a church that small that much in the country, the pastor will be uneducated."

"I know," I answered, "but we are in a place in our lives that we might never be again. Now is a chance for us to look around. I want to at least go one time."

We went the first Sunday in July. Penny was right; the pastor was not highly educated, it was the smallest church we had attended, and it was next to nothing but pine trees and oaks. As we were driving away from that fateful visit, my wife asked, "What do you think?"

I just looked over and saw tears in her eyes. Before I could speak, she said, "I think this is it."

"I think so too," I agreed.

We've been going ever since.

I suppose the main reason we decided to set our bags down here is it just felt right, it seemed like this was home, where God was leading us. There are other things that have served to deepen that conviction as the weeks have passed. One of those is the collection of sounds that surround our experience at Centerville. When we get out of my wife's truck on Sunday morning, the sound of Jay birds, Robins, and others seep softly from God's free radio. Sometimes a crow reminds us we are in the country not town and the sound of wind whistling through the leaves is soothing to say the least. The smells of fresh mowed grass, dust, and pine needles further helps to create a mood of quiet rural serenity.

The sights we see on the way are a treat every time we travel to the church. We see birds of all sorts, deer, young and old, turkeys, squirrels, rabbits. We see the delta cotton and soybeans as we drive a road that part of The Rievers (1969)-- a coming-of-age story based on a Faulkner novel-- was filmed on. We motor past a pasture, also in the movie, where now resides a large herd of sheep, beautiful in their simplicity and innocence. It is impossible see the sheep without thinking of Psalm 23 or of Luke 12:32, "Fear not little flock for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom." We drive out of the delta and rise into the hills where we see the trees swaying in the breeze their limbs raised like human hands praising the Lord. That always makes me think of the verse, "Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord." We see the sky painted differently every time we drive that way faithfully fulfilling the Scripture, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth forth his handywork" (Psalm 19:1).

Brother Gary Moore
At the church we see real people, no fancy clothes, no expensive cars, no display of conspicuous consumption. We see everyday faith, not super spirituality, not people who are so "blessed" they can't admit struggle. We see people like us who enjoy eating and fellowship. But most of all we see Brother Gary Moore the pastor. My wife was right. He is not highly educated. He is not eloquent or polished. He does not dress in fancy suits. But he is real, not a hint of pretension in him. He loves Jesus, his humility is genuine, and he has a passion for souls. My wife loves him. So do I. Sometimes his preaching makes me cry. That's something these TV preachers in their thousand dollar suits can't do. That's why he's my pastor.