By Marianna Boyce
Growing up in the Bible Belt, there was never a question where my family would be every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. It was important then, and even more so today. However, with all the social distancing, slowing the spread, and flattening the curve, I’ve been staying home to live-stream church services instead.
This past Easter, as I laid in bed with my eyes wide-open, many thoughts filled my mind. Realizing this would be the very first time I physically wouldn’t be at my home church for Resurrection Sunday, I had a tug to visit a notable place from my childhood.
My little journey required an early morning drive across Lake Murray Dam. I turned onto Highway 176, and plotted my course for a small town about thirty miles up the road. As a child, my family traveled this route often—at least three times a week.
Old barns still stand along the two-lane country highway. The dilapidated storehouses intrigued me as a young girl, and, as much as I wanted to stop and explore some of them, today was just not that day. Instead, a small country church on the side of the road was beckoning for a visit. This special place holds some of my earliest childhood memories. It was the church my dad pastored for much of my young life. My siblings and I recently talked about Victory Baptist Church, which is probably why I had such a desire to go.
When I spotted the white cinder-block building in the distance, I slowed my car to a crawl. There were no other cars out that morning, so I stopped on the road just before turning into the deserted churchyard.
Once I entered what used to be the driveway, my car sat idle on the overgrown weeds and grass, I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of nothing in particular, but everything in general—all at the same time.
Nostalgia got the best of me, and I was immediately transported back in time.
My dad’s ministry started the year he married my sweet mama in 1956. I was born twelve years later. Since I was the baby of five, my memories are vague at best, but I know this little church will always be an integral part of my Christian heritage.
When it was organized, there was no running water—which meant no indoor plumbing. Kids weren’t constantly going back and forth to the restroom during the preaching hour. They simply had to wait. If they couldn’t, there was a bush behind the building. The church underwent a remodel years later and small restrooms were thankfully added.
The children all gathered in one Sunday School class. That’s all we had. We squeezed into that tiny room to learn about Adam and Eve, Noah and Jonah. Most importantly, we learned about Jesus. My brother, Lewis, also learned the books of the Bible here. He felt incredible when he was able to recite them all from memory.
On hot summer days, we’d open the windows in hopes of feeling a gentle breeze from heaven. Since none of them had screens, that gentle breeze periodically brought in a wasp or a bee, but we’d fight ‘em off with those old-fashioned funeral home fans with the wooden stick handles.
In the winter months, gas heaters were fired up to warm the cold air. By the end of the sermon, we were always toasty and warm. It could’ve also been the convicting power of God. Who knows? At the time, I was too young to understand, but I totally get it now. Conviction can certainly make anyone a little “hot under the collar.” My brother, Tommy, recalls one particular winter day in 1962 when he experienced that true power of conviction. He knelt at the alter with my dad’s sister and Aunt Emily led him to the Lord. It was a wonderful day, indeed.
Mom played the piano while Uncle Ralph led us in songs from yesteryear. We didn’t need more than “Amazing Grace,” “Victory in Jesus,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,”—my Grandma Caldwell’s personal favorite.
My sister, Beverly, held me on her lap until mom finished playing the piano. There was no such thing as a nursery in this little church. If children misbehaved, their parents would simply take them out and “have a little word of prayer with them.” Many times, the kids would start crying before that “necessary prayer” even took place. We knew what was coming. It didn’t take long for us to learn to sit up and behave for an hour or two…ish.
As the preacher’s kids, my siblings and I always ran the risk of being called down from the pulpit. Don’t worry. None of us bear permanent scars created by the embarrassment of our childish misbehavior. We’re all thankful for parents that made us mind. Discipline never hurts anyone. It only hurts when there’s none.
My sister comically recounts a story when she decided to rest on the front pew during dad’s sermon. This was okay given Cindy’s age, but when she raised her arms and legs straight up in the air, she garnered more attention from the preacher than those sitting behind her. I’m not sure what she was thinking, but immediately sat back up when daddy called her out. Needless to say, she never did that again.
After church, we’d all run outside to play chase, red rover, or mother-may-I until it was time to head home. The older kids would stand by the road waving at the occasional passerby. Of course, no one would hear of allowing this today—and for very good reason.
We had some good times at this small country church on the side of the road, but as you can see from the photos I recently took, this building sadly sits empty as it gives way to the elements. The green grass and beautiful wild flowers I remember have been choked by weeds and suffocating vines. Those weeds are now taller than me and my sister when we stood in the churchyard proudly holding our umbrellas so long ago.
I’m not sure why I needed to visit this special place from my past. Maybe I just needed to reconnect with a time and place that anchors my Christian heritage. Living in an unprecedented day of change and uncertainty, there is one thing that is still abundantly clear—God is in control of it all. I continue to find much comfort in that.