But, then, there are days like today.
|Baptism in Bull Creek circa 1919. Bull Creek Old Regular Baptist Church, Buchanan County, Virginia. Courtesy of Forest Stiltner.|
My cousin, Forest Stiltner, posted a picture of a baptism on Bull Creek in Buchanan County, Virginia, from around 1919. The church was the Bull Creek Old Regular Baptist Church, and, when I saw the name, I was transported back in time.
Not to 1919 - I'm not that old. But sometime in the 1960s. You see, I used to go to that church with my mother and grandmother. I've been to many churches since those days: Southern Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran - but, the experience of that church when I was a child has stuck with me my entire life.
The building was small and simple. And, I was never there when it wasn't full. You'd arrive early in the morning, take a seat if you got there early enough, stand if you didn't. The preaching would start, and it wasn't just one preacher - it would be several. They would take turns. The message among them might be the same or different, but the one thing I can remember was they always seemed to be happy.
There was no band, no multimedia experience. The preachers were not professional theologians; they were coal miners, carpenters, and shopkeepers. The only time I remember seeing a collection plate was when someone needed help, or when they raised money to build a shelter so the elderly people could sit in the shade when they had "dinner on the ground".
There was no air conditioning - imagine being four years old in 1969 inside the church on a summer day, a couple of hundred people packed into it. I can remember lying with my head on my grandmother's, Ressie Bowman's, lap. The ladies all had simple fans: a wooden stick with a piece of cardboard stapled to it. The cardboard would have a Bible scene on the front, and perhaps Psalms 23 on the back.
My grandmother, or "Ma" as my cousins and I called her, would fan my face. I can still feel the cool breeze drying the sweat on my forehead.
The singing in an Old Regular Baptist Church is hauntingly beautiful. They sing many of the same hymns you know, but they sing them in a very different way. It's called "Lining Out" or "Hymn Lining". The song leader will chant a line of the song, and then the congregation will sing the line back in a long, drawn out, drone. It goes back to our roots in Scotland.
An example of and Old Regular Baptist "Lined Out" Hymn
I can remember hearing words in the songs I couldn't identify. Many years later, I discovered many of the words to the hymns were being sung from memory, and passed down from previous generations. These words were old Gaelic words, Welsh words, sometimes German words.
A hymn can tell the history of the people who sing it.
After church, we would drive to my great aunt Flowerny's or Uransa's house in nearby Convict Holler (at one point, there had been a convict camp there, and the name stuck). Sometimes, we would go to my great grandmother's house, which you reached by crossing a swinging bridge of steel cables and wooden planks over a creek. The bridge was narrow and went up at a steep angle from the road to the hillside.
After visiting, we would drive back to our home in Russell County. On the way back, there was hamburger steak at the Rainbow Drive In, or, in later years, a roast beef sandwich at Hardee's.
Today, my work involves 'ones' and 'zeroes', flashing by in digital creeks. The world is more complex now. There are work projects and publishing deadlines. But, what I wouldn't give to sit beside my grandmother in that church once more.
One day, I'll set one of my novels in Buchanan County. I have one in mind about the nearby town of Harman. It's a horror novel, and it terrifies my wife to the point she can't listen to me read aloud the few chapters I've written. That may seem strange to you now, knowing how much I love the area. But, you see, horror novels aren't about death, they're about good versus evil and an appreciation for life - and those are things I learned from my grandmother and a little church on Bull Creek.