Riding my bike up and down the hills of old highway 76 in Morganton, GA, in the North Georgia mountains, I come across six churches within a six mile stretch of the ride interspersed between pastures of grazing horses and bovine cows and hills and meadows decorated with farm houses and log cabins. I wonder what the services are like, who the people are, what they believe in and why they survive in our secular age.
It is not unusual to see a church on every street corner in Georgia. Downtown Blue Ridge, the biggest town near Morganton, has its share of churches –the First Baptist, the Methodist and others, but they are bigger. I like the idea of the old small country churches. And many of them have cemeteries next to them to bury members of the congregation.
The first church I come across on the bike route, past the Blue Ridge TVA dam and panoramic view of the lake, is the Toccoa Baptist Church and its accompanying cemetery. By North Georgia standards, it’s a medium sized church and a long white steeple emerges from the top.
I vow to attend the 11:00 am Sunday services the next week after a bike ride. Unlike previous efforts to go to church, I follow through with this one. After a brief bike ride at 10:00, I load my bike back onto the jeep bike rack and change from bike clothes into a skirt and nice T-Shirt, but I’m still perspiring from the humidity.
As I quickly scoot into the brick church, I sit on the back pew — there are only eight rows– but my effort to remain anonymous fails when the pastor, a middle-aged white man with short grey hair, a white shirt and tie and grey slacks comes over and shakes my hand in greeting. I extend my sweaty hand in embarrassment. He looks like one of the clean-cut Jehovah’s Witnesses people who roam the streets in packs.
Singing from the hymnal accompanied by an amateur piano player has already begun by members of the congregation who have gathered behind the pulpit. Music has always been the main attraction for me in Churches, whether the Stephansdom in Vienna or a small country church in the mountains.
As the congregation sings I look around the church and notice three stained glass windows with doves in them on either side of the pews. Fluorescent lighting mars the atmosphere though the church has a clean, well-cared for feel to it.
I also look for a bible in the pew racks. There are none. Everyone has brought their own bible. I guess it’s Bring Your Own Bible (BYOB); I’ve seen that at other small churches. I lean over a look at the mother-daughter pair in front of me. They have their own bibles and they are marked up –passages are underlined and marked up in red. I wish my students would only read their books for my classes as carefully!
The congregation now has time to offer prayers to people in the community. One woman reported that her husband fell off his tractor and died. It’s sad, of course, but it underlines for me the nature of the community at hand and pastoral setting. Prayers are offered.
Once the prayers are done, the preacher approaches the pulpit, but before I know it, he, along with his assistant are kneeling on the ground behind the pulpit grunting like sheep baahing to “Lord” and “God” “lord cleanse me and wash me, ha!” I can’t make out any other words. I guess it’s some sort of worship.
As the preacher goes to the pulpit, he apologizes, for what I don’t know. But he seems to dread the topic of his sermon – sin. After a brief reading from Revelations, he pauses for dramatic effect and says he wants to dwell on Revelations.
“The blood brought before the lord, sacrifice in front of the lord.”
He kept apologizing, wasn’t sure kind of sin he was talking about. “Go back into the scriptures, word of the lord.”
“I’ve sinned before the lord.”
“Purge me, wash me.”
“Watch potter on the wheel, limp ball of clay, tore it down, built it up.”
“Vineyard, wine press, bring forth wine grapes.”
“Everyone thirsty, come before the lord.”
“When things was good and things was bad…”
“Married to the lord, to one flesh, got saved, got married.”
They say, save people through the lord.”
I’m still not sure what kind of sin he is referring to — original sin, sin in general or perhaps he committed adultery…
In any case, the following week I was vacationing in Gloucester with my mother. When I pulled out the night table drawer at the Sea Lion Hotel I was delighted to find a Gideon’s Bible, in pristine condition. When I shrieked with delight my mother, the root of the family’s atheism, blanches…Maybe I’ve turned “religious.”
As a historian, I thought she might be interested to see that the Gideon’s had a nice outline at the beginning of the book, highlighting historical passages…to no avail.
Although Gideon’s bible offered no insight into the Toccoa Preacher’s discussion of sin, it did remind me of The Beatles’ song – “Rocky Racoon.” Remember the refrain –
Rocky Raccoon checked into his room
Only to find Gideon’s bible
…And now Rocky Raccoon he fell back in his room
Only to find Gideon’s bible
Gideon checked out and he left it no doubt
To help with good Rocky’s revival
And now back to Toccoa:
The ha’s! continued, he marched up and down before the pulpit.
By the end of his “sermon” he had worked up a sweat, had removed his tie and was wiping his brow.
I’ve heard these “ha’s” before at a Southern Baptist Church – I supposed they are there to make it more dramatic. No snake handling…maybe at the next one.
At the end of the sermon, people from the congregation thanked him for his “message,” a message I missed. I had planned on e-mailing him to ask, but there was no contact information on the web for the Toccoa Baptist Church.
One women thanks “Jimmy” for saving her soul.
During my bike ride before church, I had seen a sign in front of the Morganton Baptist Church: “ There are no atheists in hell…they believe.”
Yikes, am I going to be thrown feet first into the fires of hell, even though I’m only a pagan agnostic? Stayed tuned for next week’s blog…