One sunny weekend soon after I moved from England to Virginia in 2005 I drove to Williamsburg in southern Virginia, a round trip of 400 miles, to explore that historic town. On my map I noticed scenic Route 5, and a couple I asked for directions drove out of their way to put me on the right road home.
Reminiscent of the verdant tree-lined byways of France, the route was lined not with chateaux, but plantations. The sun shone in a clear blue sky and I enjoyed the beautiful scenery and lack of traffic. What must have been genetically engineered crops of corn and barley stood to attention in perfect green array and I glimpsed white plantation houses beyond handsome drives. I had never seen agriculture with prosperity so strikingly displayed.
At intervals I passed many small churches, and as it was Sunday morning and I would miss my Quaker Meeting, decided to stop just before 10 a.m. In the car park of a modest white clapboard church I saw two women. I asked, “Is there a service I can join in?” and first to arrive, they took me in with friendly welcome. “Momma Merle” as she introduced herself was a retired teacher, who had taught many of the congregation. As they filed in she told me their brief biographies.
I quickly realized this was a black gospel-singing Baptist church and mine was the only white face, but as people stopped to shake my hand and chat I didn’t feel like an intruder so much as a welcome visitor. The men were smartly suited and the women wore pretty hats and dresses, Sunday best.
A choir of ten men, with varying soloists, sang in harmony accompanied by a jazz pianist and a vigorous electric bass guitarist of considerable talent. I was reminded of the Blues Brothers film “on a mission from God,” swinging hymns interspersed with preaching, the congregation clapping hands and syncopated swaying. I was thrilled to be an extra. Irresistibly, my body rocked too. Although mostly unfamiliar, the hymns were melodious and easy to follow, I joined in every one. The preacher spoke of a changing world, a culture subject to innovation and stress, people being less concerned with others than themselves. There was humor and humanity in his message. He spoke his love for Jesus and the people encouraged with constant interjections, “Yeah, Hallelujah, Amen!” The word that springs to mind is “Uplifting.”
One chorister, a handsome guy in early middle age, thanked friends for the support he’d received after his recent operation. He said, ‘the good news is, I’m declared fit again, and the bad news is, the pastor will now stop mowing my grass. “The preacher welcomed all, including ’the visitor sitting by Ms. Merle.” The service lasted two hours and I was sorry when it ended.
Outside the church some hugged me, dozens shook my hand and everybody smiled. I was so moved I found it hard to keep my composure. They must be descendants of slaves from the old plantations, born in that vicinity and belonging, in contrast to my own state of rootlessness, unable to call anywhere in the world “home.” I envied their rich sense of community and felt deprived in contrast, my roots planted only in a movable pot.
I’ve seldom felt more welcome anywhere on earth. It was an unforgettable experience and pure serendipity that I stopped at their fine church.