Thursday, July 3, 2008
Good graces in small places
By Kristen Johnston
Until a couple of weeks ago, I was fairly convinced that genuine love and respect within communities had virtually disappeared from today’s society. I had never witnessed first hand the idea that a community could be greater than the sum of its parts. All of that changed once I spent a weekend in Potts Camp and had the great pleasure of visiting Bethany Baptist Church and getting to know Bethany’s pastor Brother Donald Worsham and his wife Deborah.
I met Donald and Deborah for the first time at their home, just down the road from Bethany Baptist. From the moment I walked through the door, they treated me like someone they’ve known for a lifetime. So it should have come as no surprise that when I attended the church service the next day I found the same gracious welcoming from the church members. I felt right at home among the Bethany folks who radiated a genuine love for God, possessed a genuine love for each other and so warmly embraced a complete stranger. Especially a journalist.
Brother Donald Worsham was standing in front of his congregation in the warm, friendly sanctuary of Bethany Baptist Church. Forty or so people were sitting in the pews, most of them members, but a few of them were first time visitors. There’s an easiness about the way he speaks, but an authoritativeness, too. The members appreciate his approachable demeanor and hang on his words.
This particular Sunday, Brother Donald was talking about prayer. Specifically, the generalities of modern prayer. He said people have a habit of asking for God’s help in the vaguest terms, and that doing so dilutes both the meaning of prayer and its effectiveness. He was talking about how to pray for the important things in life, and how to make the most of your prayers so you, and God, can be completely clear about what your expectations are. Here’s a little bit of honesty on my part – I’m not a Baptist, Southern or otherwise, but it’s tough to sit before Brother Donald and not be moved by how practical the whole thing sounds. He’s forthcoming in his earnestness, and says exactly what’s on his mind. Never one for subtlety, Brother Donald was wearing a suit, and his tie was emblazoned with a large gold cross.
Bethany Baptist has been around for a while – over 70 years. It’s gone through its share of changes, of course – and locations, too. In the years before the Second World War, the church was located at the bottom of the hill it currently stands atop. It was founded by 13 charter members on August 27, 1936 and in the spring of 1939 the church called for a pastor and acquired an abandoned Methodist church building. The building was dismantled board by board and then rebuilt on approximately two acres of land donated by J.A. Howard. His grandchildren, Margaret Greer and Wayne Howard are both active members of the church today. Over the years church membership grew and declined and grew again as the community changed. These days the church has around 75 members. This increase in membership led to the building of a new church sanctuary which was completed around 1988. In the late 1990s, the old church classroom building was torn down to make way for a larger classroom and fellowship area. In typical Bethany fashion, donations for the new building were given by the late Bobby Bennet and his wife Connie, but you wouldn’t hear it from them... because Connie and her family do things simply out of generosity and love for their community. This is a recurring theme in Potts Camp.
About his church, Donald describes it best by saying, “We’re a family, and we’re a group of extremely loving people. At the end of the day, we all love one another very much. We fish together, we help each other; when someone is sick, we tend to them.”
During the sermon I attended, he became more and more animated – something he explained would happen as the sermon went on. The word of God speaks through him every Sunday, he says, and he doesn’t necessarily know where it will lead him or his words. (When I asked him if he was opposed to photography in the church during his sermon, he actually encouraged it, stating that he was curious to see what he looked like while giving his sermon.)
This is the spirit of openness that characterizes nearly everything about the Bethany Baptist Church. Every member of the congregation either knows every member already or, if a visitor comes through, will do everything in their power to make them feel included. Brother Donald talks about people by name, but never long enough to make them feel uncomfortable. In fact, the atmosphere is just the opposite: to walk into Bethany Baptist Church is to remove yourself from time and space. That’s not to say that the Bethany Baptist Church is either small-town or antebellum. Sit through a service, and you’re just as likely to hear about the church barbecue next Saturday as you are the missionary work that at least one of Bethany’s members is doing in India.
Brother Donald talks about a number of topics during his sermons, but it all comes back to the crux of what he stands for; the reason he says he was called by God: “to share God’s word with others so they can have the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and allow him to be Lord of their lives.” Donald says he had an incredibly powerful experience of his own that has allowed him to be an effective leader in the church.
On the surface, Brother Donald is a typical Baptist pastor: an honest man with a lovely, kind-hearted wife, four successful children, a love for the people of his church, and a passion for sports and the outdoors. Dig a little deeper, however, and Donald proves to be a complex theologian, intimately connected to the messages he preaches to his congregation.
One of eight children born in Charleston, Mississippi, Donald Worsham discovered God at the tender age of eight. “I came from a family that was not very religious,” he explains. “The first time I explored the Lord’s word was after family dinner, with Billy Graham articles taken from my father’s newspaper. I would sneak into the bathroom to read them.”
After high school, Donald joined the Marine Corps and later the Memphis Fire Dept, where he experienced much of the spiritual growth that shaped his young manhood. Living in a Southern city during the Civil Rights Movement, Donald was exposed to situations that forced him to stand firmly behind what he believed was morally and spiritually justified. “I did what was right,” he explains, “even when I felt like I was one of just a few guys who would.”
It was in this same fire station at 10 p.m. on April 15, 1976 that Donald announced himself as saved before God. Since that day, Donald has been a devoted member of the Baptist church and witness to many of his own friends’ salvations in the eyes of God. “Once you’re saved, the whole world can tell,” Brother Donald explains to his congregation this Sunday morning. “I could just go through here naming people…how they’ve been saved, and how their lives are better now.”
Looking back, his duty to God from that point forward was clear to him: he was to spread God’s word. Donald began to devour the Bible with a scholarly passion which was first utilized through the counseling of his fellow fire- fighters during tough times, including divorce. Using the Matthew Henry Commentary and Strong’s Concordance as guides, Donald studied the Bible from cover to cover, with hopes of one day becoming a Baptist pastor.
Bro. Donald moved to Potts Camp in 1982, where he joined Bethany Baptist Church as a Sunday School teacher from 1984 to 1996. On August 7, 1996, he retired from the Memphis Fire Department and became pastor of Clear Creek Baptist Church in nearby Lamar. This began a period he describes as “preparation” for his ultimate goal: to one day become the pastor of Bethany Baptist. According to Donald, the congregation urged him to devote his full time to Bethany. At the time, Bethany Baptist Church was led mainly by Josie Schoffner, whom he describes as a “pillar” of the church. She and her husband Ruben were two of the 13 founding members of Bethany and were deeply rooted in the church’s community. As fate would have it, they were ready to retire at the same time Brother Donald intended to approach them about the future of the church. Their prayers were inversely answered through Brother Donald, whom they trusted to lead the church in their footsteps.
Since July 2002, Brother Donald has led Bethany Baptist Church, whose community has matured into a firmly rooted family tree within the haven of the Holly Springs National Forest. It is moving to see the sparkle in Brother Donald’s eyes when he speaks of his plans for the future and his trust in God’s plans for his humble church. Thanks to the kindness of silent donors within and outside of the community, the congregation has enjoyed the crisp, white, wooden walls of the sanctuary amidst the breathtaking natural landscape. However, what surprised me most, in spite of the transformation the church has seen throughout the years, was that the church and the people were missing a steeple. When I mentioned this to Brother Donald, his smile faded a bit. Apparently, this has been a priority for quite some time that other matters have superseded. My mind flashed back to the near-empty collection plate during Sunday morning’s service, and I understood his situation. The economy has taken its toll on the residents of Potts Camp, and unfortunately the blueprints for the steeple have been lost in the mix of more pressing paperwork.
Nonetheless, it is with a proud smile on each of their faces that the people of Bethany Baptist speak of their ties to the church, their community, and each other. Just as Brother Donald described the Schoffner family as “pillars,” providing support to the church’s foundation, the Worsham family can equally be described as the mortar that holds the bricks of the congregation in place. “The whole structure would not exist, however,” says the humble pastor, “without the enabling of the Lord Jesus Christ. We, the members of Bethany Baptist Church, give God all the glory for the great things He does here.”
(Kristen Johnston is a journalist from Houston, Texas, who recently traveled to Potts Camp.)
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