Thursday, March 28, 2013
The Preacher’s Corner
A little church with a great legacy – September 28, 1989
Down in the Mississippi Delta we had a beloved Presbyterian minister whose extemporaneous preaching combined time-honored biblical exegesis with Southern storytelling, proverbial wisdom, historical recollection, judicious politicking, pastoral advice, and protracted genealogical reminiscence.
I can only with great effort understand all that ‘third cousin once-removed’ business, but I do recall as a child that no sermon in the First Presbyterian Church of Cleveland was ever completed without mention of Psalm 103 (“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”) and some reference to an honored individual whose name had appeared that week in the Memphis Commercial Appeal!
Dr. Richard A. Bolling was our pastor for 36 years, and he built well. During his ministry our church grew from 75 to 525 members, and the town grew proportionately — much of it attributable to Dr. Bolling’s influence --- he was a one-man chamber of commerce.
Such prosperity for a small church in an agricultural county seat was, and is, almost unprecedented, but Dr. Bolling loved people, and the Presbyterian Church in Cleveland was built of living stones. I would not be a minister but for him.
At this stage I am too much haunted by seminary professors to be so free in the pulpit. But in this column I talk about many things — some spiritual and some not. Here I write about people — the “living stones” from which God builds the things in this world that last.
My first sermon was in Parchman prison — literally, to a captive audience! But I really got my first experience preaching, as a college student, in the First Presbyterian Church of Shaw, Mississippi — membership six. Dr. Bolling’s influence inspired me, though I am sure my sermons were nothing like his. But I knew that he had often preached in Shaw, and I knew of other faithful ministers who had served there, like Dr. William H. McAtee, a greatly honored and long-serving Mississippi pastor at towns like Marks, Senatobia and Brookhaven. So I was honored when the little congregation asked me to help them carry on.
I said the membership was six, but these good Christians were not to be underestimated. They had one of the most beautiful churches ever built in Mississippi, a little jewel box of brick, cut stone, stained glass and polished oak. It looked exactly like a Scottish country church. Drive through the Delta and see how even tiny Mississippi churches used to sacrifice to build impressive buildings as if to say to the world that faith was a priority in their lives.
Shaw Presbyterian Church
The Shaw congregation was once much larger — about 60 — which is a respectable number for Presbyterians. They often shared a minister with Indianola, Benoit, Shelby or Rosedale.
But the children — among them David M. “Boo” Ferriss, famed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and later the beloved baseball coach at Delta State — went off to college and spent their adult lives in other places. The parents and grandparents remained in Shaw, and carried on the work of their church.
By the time I came along, Shaw had its service at 3 p.m. — a pleasant time of day to have church — and certainly easier to get a guest minister at that hour. You could name the congregants who would be present. Mrs. M.L. Turpin, Mrs. C.L. Beckham Sr., Mr. W.D. Chatham. Mrs. L.M. Ferriss, as well as Mr. and Mrs C.L. Beckham Jr., and their children (the one young Presbyterian family who had stayed in Shaw, though Buck Beckham worked in Cleveland).
The Beckham children were not yet members, so there were six on the roll. All these families lived in a row down the street from the church along the banks of Porter Bayou, where beautiful oaks line the streets that follow the winding stream on either side, creating a sort of watery Main Street for the little town.
There were always these six in the congregation every Sunday, for if all were not able to come, the service would be “postponed,” so as “not to trouble the visiting minister.”
This was not bad — a church that always had 100 percent attendance, plus usually a visitor or two. Some of the mega-churches could not begin to hold the crowd if even a third of their members ever showed up at one time. But God loves both large and small churches.
Mrs. Beckham Jr. (Marie) was the organist. She always played the same piece while the offering was received, a setting of the 23rd Psalm from the hymnbook. I never sing “The Lord’s My Shepherd” without thinking of Shaw.
Mr. Chatham always took up the collection. The offering plates stayed on the communion table, which had some old wax candles that had melted toward each other. There were also a couple of plastic ferns that were just a bit dusty, for the church was not air-conditioned, and in summertime the windows were open.
I like dusty ferns. They remind me of an old church I loved.
The service was as formal as a Presbyterian service can be. We sang three hymns (slowly, of course) and said The Lord’s Prayer (with “debts”) and The Creed. But no robes.
Presbyterian ministers of that day only wore robes in the larger towns. As a student preacher, I was not yet entitled to a gown.
There was a period when anyone could stand up and make an announcement—as if all the “news” wasn’t well known before the service ever started.
We knew things were winding down for the congregation when one of the elderly members had an accident. Trying to park, she accidentally ran the hood of her car through the plate glass at the local Piggly Wiggly. She ended up right in the first checkout lane. They saw her coming, and were able to get out of the way, and fortunately, nobody was hurt. When they got her out of the car she said, “Oh, I just know my children will try to make me stop driving!” They knew better than to try.
The Methodists and Baptists at Shaw look at each other from almost identical buildings directly across the bayou from each other. They used to have the annual Union Thanksgiving Service at the Presbyterian Church, for since there were relatively so few Presbyterians, it served as a sort of holy “neutral ground.”
The “big event” while I was preaching at Shaw was the election of Mrs. Ferriss as an elder. Women elders were a new thing, but the Presbyterian Church’s rules said that every local congregation had to have at least two elders. The problem was that Shaw had only a single male member (the Beckhams having joined the Cleveland Church by this time). Rather than disband, the congregation elected Mrs. Ferriss as the number two elder.
In Shaw, the duties of the elder included taking up the collection, but it was understood that Mr. Chatham would continue passing the offering plate by himself, as had been the custom for many years. It had to do with something St. Paul said, I think.
Most of the little church at Shaw is now in heaven. The stained glass, pulpit and pews have been moved to a new Presbyterian Church in Cleveland. The old church is now used by another congregation, and the downtown district which the church borders is forlorn and derelict.
Recently, the current minister using the old church phoned me. He’d found books and papers that went back to the day the church housed a Presbyterian congregation. One letter came from the 1890s--from the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board appealing for funds to buy a steamboat for the missionaries to use on the Congro River in Africa. (The campaign was successful.) I visited the old church to get these items and I applaud the visionary minister who’s there now, trying to reach the least, last, and lost in that very impoverished community.
I treasure those Sundays at Shaw, because there I learned never to measure success by the size of the crowd, and never to think that because a church sometimes gets smaller, it has not done its job. Jesus worked with 12 and said that God was in the midst of two or three.
For these reasons, any number in church more than six looks impressive to me, and in the Holly Springs Presbyterian Church the ladies still won’t take up the collection. I’m sure St. Paul is pleased!
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