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The Old Country Church in Rural Mississippi
A white, clapboard chapel in Rural America
A small, white frame church in rural Mississippi holds many memories for me
It was a wooden frame building in an area of rural Mississippi, where, decades ago, I spent many summers with my grandparents - a place so unaltered by urban life that it was like stepping into the pages of Harper Lee. A building filled with generations of gospel singing, fervent prayers, marriages, baptisms and funerals. Although it was a different denomination than the one I attended in Ohio, where I grew up, and different still from the denomination I belong to now, every minute I spent in that old country chapel burned itself into each of my senses in a way that stirs my memory to this day.
Even years ago, the rural church building was quite unlike the carpeted, modern sanctuary we attended back home in Ohio, which stood proudly on the corner of a busy highway. The little chapel in Mississippi had chipped paint (what was left of it, anyway) on its exterior and was nestled among tall pines that lined a dusty, red dirt road. There was no air conditioning, so the front doors remained open when the Southern heat became unbearable each summer, which was somehow fitting in the local culture, where the line between nature and man was more ambiguously drawn than in a big city.
In the summer, the sun shifted in a way that sent shafts of dust-danced light streaming through the open casement windows onto the plain wooden planks of the flooring, warming them to a golden brown. The rows of pews were smooth-surfaced, in the manner of wood long ago worn through loving usage to reveal the oils and inner luster beneath the original finish. Rich, dark wood gleamed in the areas most frequently caressed. In other areas, the original yellow-brown color remained, as though awaiting the human touch, like a forgotten lover.
The plank floors creaked with age, and the path to the altar had been worn to a patina from the many worshippers who went forward during annual revival meetings. As with the floors, the wooden benches protested audibly when you sat on them. The benches were small and rather cozy. You couldn’t help bonding with the neighbors who shared your pew after nearly sitting in each other’s laps every week.
Country churches are dying out
Church pews In old churches: A clue to life in the community
As worshipers filed in each week, the rafters hummed with low conversations throughout the pews and the chattering of small children. But when the opening chords of the first hymn sounded, the hum subsided as people settled into their pews with reverence. When it was time to sing, voices blended with enthusiasm, if not vocal skill. Although everyone held open hymnals, it was more for show than out of necessity, since everyone knew all the verses of the regular hymns by heart, just as they could readily quote passages from the Bible.
The racks on the back of each pew held the necessities of worship as well as many small clues of the life and history of the chapel and the local community. Worn and frayed hymnals nestled against equally aged Bibles, the spines of each trained with years of service to fall open naturally to certain favorite songs or passages, while other pages still sat virginal and un-yellowed, protected from the world by default, through a lack of exposure and use.
Small cards tucked in wooden pew pockets were labeled “Visitor,” with an air of hope and guarded hospitality. The pew racks were always well-stocked with cardboard discs on wooden paddles, used to fan away the heat when the room got oppressively warm. Each bore a four-color rendition of Life Eternal and worship on one side, and the more practical legend, Bryant’s Funeral Parlor, on the other.
Worshipping with the windows open was a glorious experience
Country chapels were open to the outdoors
On pleasant days warm breezes drifted in, heavy with the scent of nearby pastures and fields lying beyond the windows. As the breezes floated past the thin tapestries covering the altar, they would stir to life and wave slightly, like threadbare banners of a parade that had long passed, faded to an anemic remnant of what they’d been during more vibrant days.
I remember once studying a lone fly as it buzzed in and out of the open windows, the whir of its wings faintly disturbing an otherwise peaceful worship service. Its disregard of the boundaries reflected a centuries-old territorial heritage; its genes told him the pastures outside and the pews inside had for many generations of his species been one with the other. Once in a while, a small butterfly or two would stray into the sanctuary, its delicate color and the tissue of its wings contrasting with the Sunday dress (often in shades of navy or black, if it was a 'widder woman') of the congregation.
When that blessing and evil called progress finally extended its reach to the dusty rural road, the red clay gave way to pavement, and the old church building was eventually torn down for some ‘improvement’ or newer building. The original church exists now only in memories, but it has left a legacy with those of us who knew it.
The church in Mississippi is as strong a part of my genealogy as the names and dates on the family cemetery, and its history is entwined in the branches of my pedigree. In my memory, I can conjure up the look and feel of the beloved chapel, and as I look around, I see the life-worn faces of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and all the generations who have gone before us.