Remembering a Small-Church Childhood

This charming photo shows the church of my youth: the Church of the Messiah in Mayodan, North Carolina. Established in 1898, Messiah is a small church. Really small. No, I mean, tiny. When I counted heads for communion, a regular Sunday crowd was about 35 people. Our diminutive church – with its naturally small youth population – meant frequent Sundays as torchbearer, crucifer, flag-bearer or the like. Every Sunday, my grandmother Lena Mae (Tootie to her friends) sang in the choir, along with an assortment of relatives. Messiah is a beautiful church no matter its size, and those stained glass windows and time-mellowed pews are forever etched in my mind and my spirit.

Oh, there are stories. My sister loves to tell about the time I rolled a collection plate down the red-carpeted aisle. Then there was the Sunday I almost passed out face-first while kneeling at the altar. Father Bob trundled me out the side door with my mother hot on his heels, as I kicked off a stomach virus in the bushes. I did at least manage to get outside, I suppose. On a more serious note, I vividly remember being confirmed on All Saints’ Day in 1980. The touch of the Bishop’s hand on my 12-year-old forehead when I knelt was like an electrical shock that didn’t hurt. It was a little magical to me, the freshly minted congregant.

Messiah also hosted my father’s funeral ceremony a few years ago. The familiar wooden walls, the pews, the wall-mounted board with changeable numbers for hymns, the impossibly tiny seating alcoves for the choir and acolytes – the familiarity comforted me as family pressed together in the pews, trying to squeeze a few more into the small space. I had not been to Messiah in a few years, and it wasn’t quite the same, of course. I missed the piercing alto of my great-aunt Dot almost as much as I missed my childhood priest’s enthusiastic singing (despite his utter tone-deafness). Packed to the hilt for the funeral, the church seemed even smaller than in my memory. Things tend to shrink the further away one gets.

The warm nostalgia I feel for my childhood church and my Episcopalian upbringing explains in some way the call I felt towards St. John’s. I have been Episcopalian, then Presbyterian, and then back again, and somehow the service and ritual brings a kind of spiritual peace I never been able to find elsewhere.

I love the liturgy of the church but also the physical ritual of the service. As my Catholic friend tried to explain to a Baptist friend: “You know: Stand up, Sit down, Fight, Fight, Fight.”

Scripture has always moved me. The Psalms are pure poetry to this former creative writing major. However, the Book of Common Prayer tops it all. To this day, I can close my eyes and hear my former priest Bob Hamilton intone:

The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.

Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Kara Joyce is the manager of Canterbury Books and Gifts. She has a B.A. in journalism and communication from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and an M.A. in English and creative writing from Hollins University; she has English at Hollins and at Virginia Western Community College and completed an internship with National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition in Washington, D.C. She also is a small business owner, as a hair stylist and jewelry designer.

 

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