A Trip to Old Salem

Moravians are a small denomination of Christians from the pietistic tradition who began as a protestant group in and around Bohemia and Moravia in Europe (specifically in modern day Czech Republic).  Founded around 1457, they, of course, were met with persecution in their early days, and found a friend a couple centuries later in Count Nicholas Zinzendorf who gave them refuge at a settlement called “Herrnhut.”  With his backing and support, the church took seriously the call to spread the gospel and many Moravians migrated to North America, some settling in the Wachovia settlement in North Carolina around Winston Salem.  The old Salem community exists today (Salem is a biblical word that means “Shalom” or roughly, “Peace”).

This summer I had the opportunity to visit the Old Salem community at Winston Salem.  It is a remarkable district where a women’s college is rooted and where the old buildings of the Salem community still stand as windows to an earlier time.

Central in the Old Salem settlement is the Home Moravian Church, a beautifully preserved building that still houses the headquarters of the southern province of the denomination in the US.  Worshipers gather there and participate in such beautiful rites as the Love Feast, which influenced Methodist founder and teacher John Wesley a couple centuries ago.  The Christmas services feature a beautiful hymn that is often sung by children called “Morning Star.”  It is an anthem to the star that shone, announcing Jesus’ birth, and beckons worshipers to shine the light of Christ into the dark world.


Nearby, in a quiet part of the Old Salem community lies “God’s Acre,” the cemetery of the Moravians.  Here are buried many of the members of the church through the decades since the Wachovia settlement took place.  Gravestones look very similar to one another, regulated by the community’s preferences.  As death is the great equalizer of us all, no one’s stone stands out more prominently than anyone else’s.  All lie on the ground with the words pointed up to the sky.


In walking through this beautifully kept cemetery, where men are buried with men and women with women, I discovered the gravesite of one of my ancestors, Martin Cloud.  I don’t think Martin was a Moravian originally, but by the time of his death in 1880, he apparently had become connected with the group, as he was shown in the census as residing with his daughter in Forsyth County, NC, somewhere in or about Winston Salem.  He is the father of my aunt Jennie Cloud who married Peter L Wimmer.  They were the couple whose discovery of gold in California led to the great Gold Rush of 1849.  But rest assured, none of us inherited any of it.

I give you pictures of the cemetery and scenes around Old Salem.


Here’s a sample video from the organ in the church:

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You Can’t Fake Authenticity: The Call for Real Christian Faith

People seem hungry today for authenticity.

I personally get worn out when I’m around folks who are projecting contrived versions of themselves.  This is a difficulty plaguing American Christianity in our time.   Some have posited that it is the reason churches are declining across the Bible Belt and elsewhere in the US.  We have projected a false notion of what it means to be faithful, and that version of Christianity just isn’t resonating now.

The greatest example I can give is that for the past few decades, especially in the venue of TV evangelism, a version of Christianity that has been known as “Prosperity Gospel” has been much ballyhooed.  Even preachers’ names, like “Creflo Dollar” make this theological bent seem a little too focused on the material.  The Jim Bakker fiasco of the 1980s (who was caught practicing a complex ponzi scheme in regards to his Christian theme park near Charlotte, NC, and subsequently imprisoned for breaking federal law), and many more versions of his story that have surfaced with different preachers and different ministries, have chipped away at the trustworthiness of those who take to the pulpit in our churches across the land.

Add to that the radical liberal agenda of those preachers who almost remove the entirety of Biblical faith in order to forward social agendas (scrapping the centrality of the cross and the sacrificial atonement in order to construct alternative theories based on Marxist social ideals) and you have our present situation where preachers are about at the level of car salesmen on the scale of trustworthiness.  Lately I’ve seen several attacks on social media against megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, whose smooth style and lack of deep Biblical teaching have drawn crowds to his church, but whose salary has been the source of criticism.  This is but one symptom of the desire for authenticity that is noticeable in our day.

But that isn’t all.  People want to meet real Christians in church (or in daily life for that matter).  The image of Christianity is a little suspect it seems.  If you want to close down conversation and relationship, it seems like the best way to do that is tell someone you’re a Christian.  It isn’t popular or desirable right now in our culture.  We are told that millennials are the most skeptical generation that has appeared in quite some time.  As they are coming of age, they are loudly questioning the authenticity of those who claim to be heralds of Christ.  Those who have stayed in the church have made known their displeasure with the way some of us hide behind a facade of faith when the rest of our lives project a different image.  Ask someone under 30, and test my claims.

In Methodist practices, from the earliest time, our founder, John Wesley, ordained in the Anglican Church, pulled small groups of believers together to create authentic Christian community, in settings where they were expected to get real with one another, holding one another accountable for their walk with God.  The practice of the Methodist class meeting has largely fallen by the wayside in most Methodist churches, substituted with Sunday School classes where a lecturer brings information and everyone smiles and nods and goes home without sharing anything personal (for the most part).  Many nondenominational churches have risen up in recent years who practice a version of the small group Wesley modeled in his Methodist movement.  They are better at practicing the Methodist way of being Christian than Methodists are anymore.

But to practice this kind of discipleship requires that we are authentic.  This is a difficulty in most of our congregations, because people don’t want to reveal too much of their lives and hearts to their fellow congregants.  It would ruin the image they have tried to build of themselves and their reputation in the community if they get too real.  Yet that is what is required if we are to encounter the living God.  We have to be real.  Growth and change won’t occur until we are.  That’s the genius of the system Wesley created.  It brought to the surface in each heart the need to be authentic and honest about who we are, how well we’re following Jesus and how much we’re struggling with the demands of the gospel.

People are longing for the kind of authenticity that was practiced by previous generations.  In an age that has come up short in practicing any constructive morality, in other words, at a time when everyone is simply doing what is right in their own eyes (even though their actions just underscore the sin in their lives, and repeat that pattern over and over), we need authentic Christians to appear on the scene, folks who know that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means more than a slick formula for personal success or wealth.  It means that our lives will be reformed, and our sinfulness will be transformed and our character will be shaped by the cross.

We need to gather with other Christians and share the answer to the question:  “How is it with your soul?”  In the give and take of answering that question (and others such as “Are you obeying the prompting of the Holy Spirit?” and “How have you practiced the means of grace this week?”) there is the seed of transformation.  We grow as we become real.  Dropping the facade of our fake selves before the reality of authentic Christian community, our hearts change and we begin to bear fruit in the world for the kingdom of God.

Let’s get real.

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Can We All Just Get Along?  A Consideration of Race and Human Relations from an Appalchian Perspective

I was once accused by a supervisor of “having a thing for black people.” Apparently, in his mind, that was a sin, and I was guilty since I was attending seminary at Duke and thought his racist remarks were out of order, and was bold enough to tell him so. Shameful how honest we mountain people can be sometimes, ain’t it.

Racism is a subject that is running at high volume through our culture again. In spite of the efforts of many good hearted people to unify the races, to mitigate our differences, to cajole those who cling to symbols of division that threaten, and in spite of a recent cultural trend toward celebrating heterogeneous unions and blending of DNA across ethnic lines, there still seems to be a strong undercurrent of racial resentment and even hatred that has leaked out from the polite containers of human hearts and minds.

In the midst of one of our loudest election campaigns in recent history, one that follows the two terms of our nation’s first noticeably racially diverse President, we have heard a lot of noise about race. Both major political parties have included diverse voices on their convention stages. Neither has found a way to sustain the controversies or appease the supporters of the “black lives matter” movement nor that of its detractors.

And so I found it enticing that this summer a meeting was planned for folks interested in studying issues related to the “Melungeons” in southern Appalachia. It was held on the campus of the Mountain Empire Community College at Big Stone Gap, Virginia. I was able to attend the preliminary meeting, and enjoyed it immensely.

For those of you who don’t know, “Melungeon” refers to an historic group of people found living in the region where Virginia and Tennessee meet. This group are thought to descend from an admixture of races, possibly three, (thusly known as “tri-racial isolates”). They were sometimes described in official records as FPC (“free persons of color”) or “mulatto” denoting of mixed racial ancestry. Much has been published on this subject in recent years, although it still brings up a host of emotionally driven responses from persons thought to descend from these folks.

Darlene Wilson, who was once known as the “Web-spinning Granny” was a featured speaker. She told that though many had tried, no one to date has established a biological definition of who or what makes someone a “melungeon.” She gave a brief history of the Melungeon website she once kept, which she put into someone else’s care, and watched it disappear with all the valuable information she had obtained. Her reasoning was that people were still afraid, apparently, to be lumped into this category since the tri-racial nature of this group could possibly include black Americans. She recounted a particular time when the Melungeon Union meetings were focused on DNA evidence as a way to definitively determine the origins of these mysterious people. The results were disappointingly non-determinative. This means that there isn’t just one story, one origin. Instead, the existence of mixed ethnicities and mixed origins means that the people of the area even today can trace their origin to people from a variety of places with a diversity of backgrounds, who maintained piecemeal practices from a variety of cultural influences that shaped their descendants and the region as a whole. It means too that our myth of where we came from is just that, a myth. We probably have a lot more diversity up the genetic “woodpile” than many of us know or have been told.

Part of the problem is that in for a good part of the twentieth century the commonwealth of Virginia was served by an official who was in charge of the state’s vital statistics office who was a rampant racist. This official (whose name I refuse to use because I feel he should not be so honored) was a consultant for Hitler’s Nazis. And yet he was funded by American tax dollars. This man didn’t want anyone with even a hint of anything but purely white blood (and I thought blood was red!) to be considered a full citizen of the state. This policy caused much of the racial and ethnic identity of previous generations to become hidden simply because to talk about it could threaten your voting rights, your citizenship, perhaps even your life. Many went to their graves with concealed identities rather than entrust the truth to their progeny whose lives could be altered if facts fell into the wrong hands.

Today there is a resurgence of interest in ancestral origins. DNA tests are widely available and give some answers to questions people have about their background, even if a good deal of it is inconclusive. What is being found is that human beings have a lot more in common with one another than not. This means when one group is crying out for recognition of injustice and perceived hurt, we all need to listen. We are closer kin than we might have once thought. It means, too that we need to discount the “otherness” of people we consider different. Appalachia has long been known by scholars who have studied it as “a strange land, a peculiar people” (as in Shapiro). Perhaps the strangeness is inherent in us all, the peculiarities more common than we know or are willing to allow.

Perhaps one day we can celebrate the diversity that exists throughout the human race even as we embrace our commonality. Perhaps.

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Life After 50

I read the other day that only a couple generations ago, it was not unusual for lifespans to go just a little past 60.  That makes the subject of this post all the more interesting.

My family does interesting things after age 50.

I was in seminary when my mother turned 50.  She was living in Garden Creek, Virginia, a pastor’s wife for a couple of United Methodist Churches there in Buchanan County.  I found out that she took a brave step and enrolled at Southwest Virginia Community College to begin work towards a degree.  She moved soon afterwards to Fries, Virginia, along the New River in Grayson County, and finished her schooling at Wytheville Community College.  She graduated with an associates degree.  Her children were extremely proud of her for making this brave step.  She had given up on school when she married our dad and found herself raising us three kids.  First as a military wife, while my dad was in the US Air Force at Rantoul, Illinois (Chanute AFB), where my yankee sisters were born, then back to Scott County, Virginia where I came along a little later, she made her life as a mother and homemaker.  Those are not to be scoffed at as jobs either, mind you, but we were glad to cheer her on when she began to “set her foot down” to finish an education.  She was able to make good grades, too.  She was a studious learner.  Later that degree helped her get hired as a legal secretary, in which capacity she worked until her retirement a few years ago.

Not to be outdone, my mother’s inspiring adventure at age 50 compelled my oldest sister to also start learning in the more mature years of life.  Having raised her two sons, part of the time as a pastor’s wife in Harlan, KY, and later back at Kingsport, she entered a nursing program at ETSU, where she finished upon her 50th year, and took honors.  She now works as an RN for the Wellmont system in Kingsport.

My other sister, upon getting her five kids all grown up, began her long-anticipated career.  The first to be educated in our family at Emory & Henry and Scarritt Colleges, she was equipped to be a church musician, and finally took to the choir loft and a Christian School as an instructor around the time she entered the 5th decade of life.  She still teaches, plays an organ, leads a praise band, and directs singers in services at a Lutheran church in Hampton, Virginia.

Being the only boy in the family, my 50th birthday took me a different direction.  I graduated with my doctorate from Memphis Theological Seminary the year before I turned 40, and kept preaching in churches to which I was appointed.  But my health was deteriorating.  Stresses of church leadership and poor self care had led me to a place where I was battling extremely high blood pressure by my 50th birthday.  I was back up to a weight that was not healthy, having waged a lifelong battle in that area, seeing limited success getting it back off.  On December 19th of that year I entered a CrossFit box in Bluefield, Virginia, where I began a journey toward health.  I’m now 52 and have dropped 90 pounds, 10 inches in my waist size, and discontinued all blood pressure and cholesterol medication.  I feel a great deal better and have energy I couldn’t have imagined before.  The CrossFit community have lifted my spirits as well.  My coach, Terry, and the group who work out with me at 5:45 am each weekday are constant inspirations.  I even ran a 5K this past April for the very first time in my life.  I came in around 36 minutes, which isn’t bad for a starter.  I’ve even enjoyed dropping in on gyms in other towns when I’ve had to travel.  The camaraderie is enticing, and I learn something each time I drop in.

IMG_0957.jpg

Me, finishing my first 5k, April 10, 2016

All which is to say, even though people give us grief at those birthdays that end in “0” we can embrace new things and begin to live the next part of lives with gusto.  Don’t be scared of a number.  Dream big, and move forward.  And AARP does give good discounts!

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What a Wonderful World It Would Be . . .

Click Here to read a story on a Unity March at Emory & Henry College

I’m thankful for the student body at my Alma Mater, Emory & Henry College, for coming together to witness to the ideal that we should practice unity amidst the diversity of people in our world.  We need that witness.wXHCoZui

Racism and other “isms” have been around a long time.  It will take quite a while to eliminate them.  In fact, I wonder if we ever will.  After all, we live in the era of post-fall-from-grace humanity.  The “Adam and Eve after the Serpent’s Temptation” era.  This means, try as we might, (and try we’d better, by the way), we will never completely eliminate any sinful part of the human condition so long as we live in this sinful and broken world.  Yet, what a wonderful world it would be if we could make just a little more progress, at least.

This month marks the 32nd year since I preached my first sermon.  I was invited to preach it in a very small membership church, whose membership was composed of African American United Methodists.  There were 8 on the roll, I believe, at that time.  The sermon wasn’t much, after all, it was my first attempt.  But I was pleased that some 24 people came out to witness it.  Among them were friends from the college (I was a sophomore that year), and members of the church choir I was working with at the time from nearby Grace Presbyterian Church.  The encouragement I received that day will never be forgotten.  The black community in Glade Spring, Virginia is very close-knit, and filled with love and grace.

One of the members of that community was the custodian of Emory & Henry’s Memorial Chapel, where I often went to seek solace from the rigors of academia.  I would sit with him while he polished the brassware on the altar.  Dan Hounshell was a member of the Mt Carmel United Holy Church of Glade Spring.  He was filled with stories and it didn’t take much to get him started telling them.  We shared plenty during those years.  I remember his advice to me after graduating seminary:  “I’ve always said,” he started in his wisened style, “whenever you get more than eight or ten people together, you’ll have problems.”

A member of our Grace Choir, Mrs Virginia Lockhart, was another vital teacher of mine.  She broke the racial divide in that small Presbyterian Church when a friend invited her to sing in the choir, along with her granddaughters.  A fight ensued in the choir over her presence therein.  Things were said like “They have their own church.”  My buddy Scott and I stood up for her and said “If she goes, we go.”  They relented.  Although it wasn’t a piece of cake after that, we had a good alto section!  Virginia and I corresponded while I was a student in seminary at Duke.  I was enrolled in “Black Church Studies,” which was a requirement for all seminarians there at the time.  I told her I was ashamed of the way we white people had treated black folks, as I had been reading about it.  She was quick to agree, but also to point out, “Don’t you believe that there aren’t also some black folks who have done evil things too.”  I thought that comment helped me a lot in understanding that human nature is broken regardless of the context.

I spent some time in seminary with Will Campbell, the great Civil Rights preacher from Tennessee.  His works, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” and “40 Acres and a Goat” were pivotal in my understanding the work of those who have fought for justice during this era of social upheaval.  Campbell loved to get under folks’ skin.  For it’s beneath the skin that we all look the same.  He was the model after whom Doug Marlette, the cartoonist, drew Reverend Will B. Dunn.

There are many things to say about the racial divide.  We have a long way toward fixing that in America.  I cringe every time I think about how racially divided the church is.  I’ve had opportunities to worship where white, black and other ethnicities are present.  It seems so much fuller, and more faithfully driven when we’re together.  But the church is not the only segregated segment of our world.  There are others.

I have tried to befriend people who are different from me.  It isn’t always easy.  People who have been hurt by others who look like you don’t always want to try to trust another.  But that’s the only way we will move forward in this land.

Then I’m reminded as I do genealogy, that at least part of my family are referenced in documents that list people who were enslaved because of their skin color as property.  I am convicted of the sinfulness of my ancestors when I read those lists.

I hope the students at Emory & Henry continue to march for unity.  I hope many others will join them.  Hopefully I can be part of a similar effort here where I live.  Because I want to believe that if we work hard enough, we can eliminate the hate and ugliness that so often besets our prideful human life.  I hope we can follow the way of our Savior whose act of self-giving was central to how we are to come together.

Until we get there, let’s keep dreaming.

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You Can Get Your “Shout” Back

First, let me just add, I’m not a Pentecostal, but I do occasionally find myself in the position of shouting in worship.  The Holy Spirit has a way of doing that to you.  Sometimes you shed a tear, sometimes you feel a warm wave of the luminous Presence of God running through you, and sometimes you can’t hold back the shout.  Lately it has been a rare event that I’ve shouted.

It reminds me of that April when the snow began falling in great big, ole “Granny’s plucking her goose” sized snow-flakes.  I saw the snow coming, heard the forecasts about “significant accumulation” and waited.  And as it came down I paced and got nervous.  I saw the power lines and the tree limbs weighted down with the white stuff, and I wondered how this was going to end.  I woke up the next morning to the sound of “Pop!” “Fizzle!” and “Tweet!”  I popped up and started unplugging things.  My TV was making funny noises, the refrigerator was growling in an odd way, and the lights were not turning on.  A piece of the line that serviced our little parsonage had snapped.  We retained all 220 power but everything on 110 was off or severely limited.  We lost the microwave, the refrigerator, that TV and a whole big ball of nerve.  At least three feet of snow had accumulated.

It wasn’t so difficult finding a way to preserve our refrigerator food.  Some milk, cheese, sandwich meat and canned drinks were all we had, and we simply dug a hole in the snow bank and buried our goods in hope we could preserve their freshness for a few days.  The most entertaining thing was watching my dog, Lazarus, try to move through the yard.  She pitifully looked toward the house several times like “Man, aren’t you going to dig me out?”  So I finally got my shovel and shoveled her a path, from our back door to the gate in the fence near my neighbors.  They had called to check on us.  They still had power so they invited us to come to them for our meals.  Since we had heat, we stayed home most of the time, but fellowshipped with them at least twice a day.

I called the power company.  I always got recordings, but I kept trying.  Once I got an operator in Ohio or somewhere who assured me that the men were on the lines making repairs.  That was my hope for the nine days it took to get our power restored.  Each day I lost a little more sanity, and worried myself to death longing to get back to normal.  I wanted it for my dog, my wife, and if they were ok, then for me.

When the truck finally arrived to check out our line, the snow had begun to melt.  The food supply was just about gone from the snow bank.  We found out we were the only house in Tazewell without power.  It was the fault of a large tree near the corner of the garage, which found itself weakened by age and the weight of the snow.  We had branches trimmed and couldn’t wait to get power restored.  I can remember when it came back, we rejoiced with “joy unspeakable.”  And we had to restore our refrigerator, and find a new microwave, and change several light bulbs.  It probably took until well into May to get back to normal.  But we talked about that April snow for years.  We also learned to appreciate good neighbors, and vowed to be better neighbors ourselves in the future.

Along life’s way, there are times when things come along that darken our days, dampen our joy, and bring us pain and grief.  No matter how hard we try to avoid these things, they come along.  Sometimes the collective pain of life can cause us to withdraw from the source of life, to retreat into a corner where we try to preserve what we still have until the storm passes.  In so doing, we lose our perspective, and we sometimes lose our joy.

There are so many things in our world today that threaten our sense of safety and security.  These things are beyond our collective control.  From Sept 11, 2001 to now there has been a steady departure from faith and joy in our land.  People have become harder, and churches have become emptier.  At the very time we should be drawing closer to God, we’ve pushed God away and chosen destructive habits and desires, perhaps in an attempt to cover our pain.

I was traveling through Claypool Hill, Virginia, the other day.  I like to tune into a religious radio station there sometimes.  I did so and heard a group of people trying to have church at the station.  They shared prayer requests, and then one of them sang a song.  This song is one I’ve been blessed by in the past.  As they sang it, in spite of the lackluster voices, and the fact they were having trouble staying in tune, I felt the Holy Spirit in the words they were sharing.  Before I knew it I was shouting.  I don’t mean just hollering, I was shouting praise to God.  I drove a little further and still had to shout a while.  This happened three more times that day.  I couldn’t stop.  I know if its fake you can turn it on and off at will.  If it’s real, though, it just comes when it comes, and stays for the time the Spirit says it will stay.  I can’t tell you how joyful it feels to get your shout back.

It wasn’t that long ago I lost a granddaughter.  Before that was a stream of well-loved relatives, and a little unborn daughter we miscarried.  That and the spiritual malaise in which so many of us are living had taken its toll on me.  But this day, this wonderfully random day, I found myself rising above the pain of life.  I found the joy of the Lord residing in my soul once again.  I couldn’t say “Thank you, Lord” enough.  The snow of my soul’s winter began to give way to the first buds of a renewed spring.  Jesus said that if you trusted in him, he would give you “life-giving water.”  That gift is ours for the asking.

I hope in this season of spring, as the weather breaks, and the birds return, and the landscape greens up again, that you will find your “shout.”  And I hope you’ll rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory.

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History of a Part of Weber City, Virginia

There’s dirt moving down at the river in my home community of Weber City, Virginia.  Today’s paper (Saturday, February 6, 2016) talks about an industrial development on the old Bray farm.  I thought I might should enlighten folks about the “Bray” place.

There was a time that Weber City didn’t exist.  But there was a community there with a post office that had a different name.  The community grew up along a route that connected Estillville (now “Gate City”) with the Tennessee communities surrounding Kingsport.  This wagon road crossed the river at a ford just a few hundred feet west of the present bridge across the North Fork of the Holston River on today’s US Highway 23.

The south side of the river was property belonging to the Akard family (of whom I descend), and the north side of the river contained land owned by the Wilhelm family.  The Wilhelm family operated a post office and the community was called, on early maps, “Wilhelm.”  The Wilhelm cemetery sets on a hillside fronting the northbound lane of US Highway 23, across from Roberts’ Tires & Recapping Center, with a concrete retaining wall along the western edge of the grave yard.  Ancient graves are in this little cemetery belonging to several members of this family.

A quick run-down of their history goes something like this:

A man named George Wilhelm and his wife Rebecca came to Sullivan County, Tennessee from Maryland between the time of his birth in 1790 and the birth of their son Charles in 1814.  Charles Wilhelm was born 24 January, 1814 at Sullivan County, TN.  By 1836 Charles was living in Scott County, Virginia, at the site of the “Bray” farm, and married a woman by the name of Adeline Davidson that year, when he was 22 years old.  This couple had at least 9 children, including six girls and three boys.  One of the boys was Joseph Herren Wilhelm, b. 1846, d. 1936.  Joseph married Mary Catherine Grimm in 1868, after he returned from the Civil War.  Together this family had at least three known children, William, Robert C., and Richmond C.  William married a Godsey, and Robert C married Lydia Kinser.  Robert and Lydia raised eleven children, three boys and 8 girls.

Sometime around the 1880s the Wilhelms built a house on the farm at the river.  It looked like this:

Home of the Wilhelmina family. House was replaced by the Bray house at a later time.

Home of the Wilhelm family. House was replaced by the Bray house at a later time.

The picture was supplied to me in the late 1970s by John Robert Wilhelm, known as “Bob,” who was a brother to Joe Wilhelm who lived at the intersection of the Yuma Road and the old Yuma Road in a log house that was built in the 1930s, and later in the brick house that still stands nearby.  Joe is the little boy in the front of this picture with the cap on.

There was an interesting relationship between the Wilhelm family and the Rogers family.   The Rogers family was a black family who lived with the Wilhelms prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.  The 1870 census shows the Charles Wilhelm family neighbors to Harrison Rogers (with Edith, Houston, Elizabeth, Frances, James, and Elmira).  It is known that this 1870 census is the first census to list black residents, and it is likely these were former slaves.  The Rogers family eventually  moved to Gate City, but they were instrumental in helping the Wilhelm farm survive during Reconstruction.

You’ll have to trust me on this one, because there is no documentation to back it up, but there is a slave cemetery on the Bray farm, located between the house and the big old barn. There was a garage at the end of the driveway, and near it were some evergreen trees.  At one time this was the site of the cemetery, with field stones marking graves.  Bob Wilhelm told me and my grandfather that the family that bought the place from his family removed those gravestones several years ago and there was no visible sign of the graves.  There were probably several folks buried there.

A steel bridge was erected over the Holston River in front of the Wilhelm farm in the early part of the 20th century.  At one time the post office for the area was known as “River Bridge.”  Later the service station at intersection with Highway 23 and Wadlow Gap Road was built and the fans of the Amos and Andy show stuck “Weber City” in the window, and as we know, the residents of the young community embraced that name for the area from the river to Moccasin Gap.

 North fork of the Holston

The Bray farm during the 1977 flood.

It is my hope that the new industrial park will bring jobs and livelihood to our little community along the river, but let’s not forget there were people here before us.  I hope Weber City will prosper.

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Three Kings in Memphis

imageSeveral years ago I traveled to the big city of Memphis to embark on an educational journey.  Wanting to obtain a doctor of ministry, I had looked at different schools in different places, and pondered a variety of programs.  I finally settled on a seminary in Memphis.  I’m sure it had something to do with Graceland.

Memphis is a big place, and there are lots of “king-sized” features there.  The urban environs sprawl out for blocks in every direction, bounded by a freeway that goes around the city, but cannot contain it.  Churches are huge.  There is even the Bellevue Baptist Church that takes up enough acreage to feed a small country.  And there is a patchwork of human diversity there:  racial, socio-economic, multi-national, political, and so forth.

I tried to see the sights there.  I found myself drawn to the stories people would tell about Elvis.  The King of Rock and Roll chose to live in Memphis in the height of his fame and glory.  He is supposedly buried there on the grounds of Graceland.  This man whose name still draws swoons from the female crowd was quite the entertainer.  He sold many records in his lifetime, from a recording studio right there in the heart of Midtown Memphis, and broke new ground in the middle of the 20th century like no one has ever done.

My trip to his home was complete with a visit to the souvenir shop across the way.  There a homeless man entered the shop while I was there, causing other patrons to get nervous.  The shop keeper politely directed him back outside, and missed nary a beat ringing up the next sale.  I have to admit, it was a welcome distraction from all the Elvis “memorabilia” for sale that was made in China.

A second King there was over on Beale Street.  In the town where the Blues were born, B. B. King was quite the performer.  I had listened intently to an old album of his from the 60s in my earliest days as a bachelor in the hills of Virginia.  “I Want to Get Married, But No Woman Will Be My Bride,” was one of my favorites.  Thankfully, I finally found one who wanted to and we were.  I respected King’s musical innovations.  He knew how to make ole Lucille sing (that was his guitar).  The Blues still speaks as a musical genre, even though there aren’t many singing this style anymore.

But perhaps the largest King whose memory lingers over the city is one named Martin.  I mean, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  King didn’t choose to live in Memphis.  He was merely passing through, pausing long enough to spend some time in an incarnational way with some advocates of Civil Rights when his life ended on the balcony of a Memphis motel.  King’s work resonated with many within the city.  Just not the ones who held power.

I was a child when this event occurred.  I don’t remember it vividly, but I do remember it in the way I remember other events of the day.  The news came on, a bulletin or update was read (in those days people read the news, that’s all it was), and if our family wanted to discuss it, they would.  If not, we would go on with our lives.  I remember a small discussion around the issue of King’s death.  I’m not sure what was said, but somehow I marked this event as a significant one, and was oddly shaped by it although I was part of a white, middle class family growing up in the Appalachian region.

There was only one person of color in my school, a bi-racial girl who lived across the highway from where I was raised, near a night club.  We treated her as though she was one of us, mostly.  I’m not sure how she would tell that tale, but we didn’t make a big deal over the difference in her appearance.  It wouldn’t be until 8th grade when our school’s population would merge with 8th graders from three other distinct schools that we would meet more African American students.  And in High School we would have exposure to teachers who were black.

Those were the days before “Black History Month” and a national holiday devoted to the memory of Dr. King.  The legacy he left is one that proves that someone willing to speak up for justice can engender change in a whole nation, simply by articulating a dream.  Even though he died defending his vision, and even though vestiges of the way things used to be still pop up in embarrassing ways from time to time, he spoke the truth to a powerful system, and today opportunities are better for people of all stripes.  We live in a time that is still shaped by his work.  Although not everyone has embraced a vision of racial reconciliation, there are many ways that progress has been made.

In one of my excursions through the city during my education at Memphis Theological Seminary, I arranged to visit the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ, home of the late pastor and Bishop G. E. Patterson, a dynamic voice of the pulpit in Memphis’ inner city.  His mega-church structure was built on the edge of a public housing area, one which his church helped to rehabilitate.  The experience of going to church there was one of the high points of my life.  I was in church over three hours and had no idea how much time had passed.  From the music to the preaching to the fellowship among the gathered souls in that place, it was authentic worship.  The Church of God in Christ is one of the larger denominations in America, and it is the church over which Bishop Patterson presided at that time.  It was good to experience the exuberance of praise among a mostly black crowd, one in which I felt I stood out and felt conspicuous, not something I had felt many times in my life.  The hospitality there is what I remember most.  Everyone was welcome, and no one would be turned away.  That’s how church should be.  Everywhere.

I thought of these three kings of the city, and how much they had influenced the world, and how much their influence began in the church.  Memphis Theological Seminary now holds a collection of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In that same library is my completed doctoral project, not far from King’s works.  While my project will probably never have much impact, I can be thankful that I was able to sojourn for a while in a place where kings have reigned.  And I can hope and pray for a day when content of character will be more decisive in how we interact with one another.

Come, blessed day.  Amen.

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The Appalachian Region Has Died. Long Live Appalachia!

  “Little birdie, little birdie.
   Come and sing me your song
   Got a short time to stay here
   And a long time to be gone”

(Listen to a version of this song by the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80if-yp-tdc)

taylor-home-mural

Detail of a folk painting that once adorned a home in Scott County, Virginia, depicting the tree of life.

Appalachia is a region that is both loved and hated by America.  It is loved for its natural beauty, crafts, stories and songs.  Yet it is the subject of ridicule for its poverty, lack of coherence with modernity and abundant superstitions and apparent backwardness.  The oft-quoted saying is that it is a “strange place, peculiar people (as in Henry Shapiro).”  Yet it serves in a larger way as the cultural attic of America, a place to keep memories and honor the past.

But the Appalachian region has fallen upon hard times of late.  As the older generation has passed away, many of the old ways have fallen into the ash heap of history.  Economic forces and political policy are robbing the region of its long-counted-upon treasure (coal), and forcing the young to choose between leaving the area for opportunities elsewhere or falling into the despair of addiction to prescription pain killers (referred to as “hillbilly heroin”) or worse.  Hopelessness is gaining a new foothold in the hearts of the people of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and east Tennessee.

Near where I live lies one of the poorest counties in the United States.  McDowell County, West Virginia was once a bastion of coal development.  At one time it was a powerful producer of the “black gold.”  But by the 1950s things changed and the population quickly dwindled, homes were abandoned and communities began a long decaying process.  This has been captured masterfully in Elaine McMillion’s interactive documentary “Hollow.”  (Which you can find at this link:  http://hollowdocumentary.com/).  In spite of decades of despair, hope is not vanquished.  There are trickles of renewal beginning to take place, but the hope of coal mining returning in a big way is pretty much missing on anyone’s dashboard of life.

Public policy over the last seven years from the federal level has added to the demise of an already languishing industry.  Coal mining was not attracting new workers as young people were unsure about working for an industry they perceived had taken so much from their forebears in terms of health and well-being.  A job fair about a decade ago drew very little interest from the young for jobs in the mining industry.  President Obama’s efforts to clean up the planet have made fossil fuels almost anathema.

We are living in a time of population loss not only in McDowell County, but throughout the Appalachian region.  Very small pockets of the population are growing, but the vast majority are in a tailspin.  The school-aged children demographic is diminishing.  Young people, if they get to go on to higher education, will find other places to live and work, where job prospects are much brighter.  There are few major metropolitan areas in the region, and the prospects for major employers entering the area to revive the flailing economy are bleak at best.

So, many Appalachian people are finding their way into a renewed “Appalachian Diaspora.”  Scattered into far-flung areas of the country, and the world at large, they are facing choices.  Either they can try to fit into new communities, or choose to keep the elements of home and mountain culture as best they can within new contexts.

These are the exact choices that were made when European immigrants first found their way to the shores of this continent.  They brought with them their trades, their knowledge base of stories, their faith, their music, and their familial ties.  As they wandered into the sea of mountains, they established their homes as places to be free to live as they wanted.  Here they preserved portions of their older European culture as they passed down songs and stories from previous generations.  They adapted to their new surroundings by learning from native Americans, often adopting native cultural elements like farming and use of herbs, and sometimes marrying into native families.

This isn’t the first diaspora for Appalachians.  There have been times other generations found themselves needing to relocate to support their families.  They often made their ways to industrial centers in Ohio, Michigan, and other areas.  Stories abound of hardship and discrimination that was encountered in that first diaspora.  Today families are traveling south and west.  Hardship is still possible.  Mountain accents are distinctive.  Dialect can even be lost as one finds the reception of it not very friendly in population centers.  The loss of cultural memory will be complete in a generation or two away from the region.  In the mean while, the best of Appalachian culture is celebrated through departments at some of the regional colleges, and in museums that remain scattered through the region.

For those who remain in the region, life is not very hopeful right now.  Their despair is a very present issue for which no easy solution seems available.  Someone recently told me “we are raising a generation of feral children.”  This pattern seems to be set to continue for an unknown period.  Somehow, some within the Appalachian region have lost the independence and self-reliance of previous generations, and have become susceptible to the “entitlement mentality” that grows from dependence upon the welfare system, with utter reliance upon substance abuse and a life lived with no desire for betterment.

The psalmist wrote:  “I lift mine eyes unto the hills.  From whence cometh my help?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”  (Psalm 121:1).  I truly believe that there is a source of grace that will bring hope once again out of the despair of Appalachia.  God has not abandoned us.  In fact, I think it is possible that there are already new things being born here that will bear fruit in the future.  There is a strength in mountain people that persists throughout the storms of life.  May it ever be so.

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The Life and Legacy of H. R. W. Hill

 

HRW Hill

H. R. W. Hill, from “Lives of American Merchants”

Henry Rufus Willie (more commonly referred to as “H. R. W.” or “Harry”) Hill, a native of Halifax, North Carolina, found his way with his family to the edge of the frontier in the early 1800s, to a new home in Williamson County, Tennessee, at the town of Franklin.  The “Willie” in his name is a reference to a Halifax politician by the name of Willie Jones (pronounced “Wiley”) after whom the town of Jonesborough, Tennessee was named.  Hill was reportedly about 12 or 13 when the move occurred, occasioned by the death of his father and his mother’s subsequent remarriage to a man who had interests out west.  Hill is said to have walked the whole way, with a rifle across his shoulder, hunting small game for food on the way to feed the family.

In the new territory, at the edge of Indian lands, Hill forged a new life for himself.  He met and married a young lady from the McAlister family, Margaret McAlister, whose father owned a store, and who invited Hill to join in his business, a role for which he seemed naturally gifted.

He soon began to travel as a young man, on business interests, throughout the region from Alabama to east Tennessee and Kentucky.  In these travels, he became a fast friend of Methodist bishop William McKendree, a fiery preacher and missional leader who was the first native-born bishop of the Methodists in the United States.  According to Bishop Robert Paine, Hill was converted under McKendree’s powerful preaching at Franklin, Tennessee, during an unusual time of revival.  Hill’s conversion was described as “powerful,” which is a word that was used to describe someone who made a sharp change in character as the result of their adoption of faith.  The year was about 1817.

In J. B. McFerrin’s History of Methodism in Tennessee, we find the following:

“One of the early members of the church in Franklin was Harry Hill.  When a young man he embraced religion and united with the Methodists, and became a very zealous and useful member.  He had formerly lived in Jonesboro, where he was the instrument of much good.  Mr. Hill was a prince in liberality, and when a young man was gifted in prayer and song, and exerted a salutary influence in the community, especially on the young people.  He was a successful merchant, a gentleman of fine presence and agreeable manners.  He afterward removed to Nashville, where he long resided and acquired not only a large fortune, but a wide reputation as a man of great sagacity and superior business qualifications.  He contributed largely of his means in support of the institutions of Christianity, and was noted for his noble and generous acts toward those who were in need of help.  His house was the home of the ministers of Christ, where his brethren always met a most cordial reception.  Bishop McKendree had a spacious and well-furnished apartment in his mansion, where, in old age, he spent much of his time, enjoying, without abatement, the warmest and most tender sympathies and affectionate regards of the whole family.  He was the special friend of Bishop Soule, and complimented him with a handsome country residence after the Bishop removed to Nashville.  He gave to the cause of missions, a short time before his death, several lots of land in Louisville, Kentucky, which proved to be valuable.  Indeed his gifts and various acts of generosity were munificent.  His wife, Margaret McAlister, was a modest, meek, devout Christian, an ornament to her sex, and a blessing to the Church.  Mr. Hill removed from Nashville to New Orleans, buried his wife, and finally yielded up his spirit to the God who gave it.  His latter years were full of business and full of cares, but it is hoped he made a safe retreat and joined his family in the land where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.”

Hill never actually lived in Jonesborough, as McFerrin suggests, but traveled there on business and according to the history of the Methodist Church in that place, he found a prayer meeting going on in the home of a Mrs. Brown.  At this meeting, Hill did some exhorting, or influencing by his personal testimony and example.  God apparently used Hill to bring about a dramatic conversion in the lives of several of the young men of the old town, including the grandson of pioneer Tennessee statesman, John Sevier.  After his time there a church was organized and added to the list of appointments in 1822.  This congregation’s influence was great enough that the second gathering of the newly-formed Holston Annual Conference was held in Jonesborough in 1825, and was a time when a significant offering for missions was collected by the women of that place, an amount equal to a year’s salary for a preacher.  Hill’s in-laws were involved in business interests in Jonesborough, so it makes sense that he traveled there.

He continued to gain wealth and standing in the Nashville area as a leading citizen.  By the 1830s he had amassed a great amount of money and was serving in several capacities for Tennessee’s improvement, such as being named a member of a board to establish an Insane Asylum in Nashville, and another to build a turnpike from Nashville to Franklin.  Later he was named as an ambassador from Tennessee to the Republic of Texas, and is said to have given funds from his own property to assist the young republic.

In addition to business activities, he remained loyal to the church.  His influence assisted the establishment of the McKendree Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of downtown Nashville, as well as a Methodist congregation in New Orleans, for which he is said to have hired the architect.  His friendship with Bishop McKendree, and his act of opening his home to the clergyman, got him named as a co-executor of the bishop’s estate upon his death, for which service he was awarded a black cane and the bishop’s silver seal (Will Book II Page 191, Sumner County, Tennessee, as transcribed by Charlotte Wilson Williams, 1998).

A financial devastation hit southern businesses in the late 1830s, prompting Hill to relocate from Nashville area to New Orleans.  He had been ruined financially, but continued with his business acumen to develop at the mouth of the Mississippi River a large cotton factorage business with his business partner James Dick.  The House of Dick and Hill was an influential New Orleans partnership that grew quite wealthy and is documented in several lawsuit records that still survive.

In New Orleans, Hill opened an art gallery with several others, which, though short-lived, shows the kind of investments in which he placed his funds.  He came to own at least four plantations and several slaves. Hill’s religious life affected how he conducted life on the plantations.

According to William Scarborough, in Masters of the Big House:  Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth Century South, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana:  Louisiana State University Press, 2003) writes:

“Many elite slaveholders exhibited concern for the spiritual as well as the physical health of their black wards.  Some erected elaborate plantation chapels, others employed ministers to conduct services at regular intervals, and still others welcomed missionaries from the leading denominations to their estates.  Planter wives, who were frequently more devoted than their husbands, participated in the religious instruction of their slaves by holding Sunday School, offering devotions, teaching hymns, and catechizing the children.  The motives were mixed.  Obviously, a central objective was that of social control:  to encourage good behavior and to render slaves more reconciled to their station in life. (P 188-189)

“In view of their own denominational preference, it is not surprising that many elite planters sought to encourage their slaves to receive their instruction in religious doctrine within the confines of the Episcopal Church.  That denomination was clearly preferable to the more egalitarian Methodist and Baptist faiths.  Masters tolerated the former, especially after that church divided along sectional lines, but most refused to countenance any associations with the Baptists.” (P. 189)

It was documented that due to the influence of his wife, Margaret, H. R. W. Hill became committed to doing all he could “short of abolition” for his slaves.  The language used by people in Hill’s time is no longer customary or acceptable in polite conversation.  He refers to his slaves as “my negroes.”  He is said to have left orders that if his slaves were to be sold after his death, that it was his will that families be kept together insofar as was possible.

An abolitionist writer, Charles Elliott, in a piece called The Bible and Slavery:  In Which Abrahamic and Mosaic Discipline Is Considered with the Most Ancient Forms of Slavery, Etc. in 1862, published by the Methodist Episcopal Church (the northern branch at that time), and in it describes the scene of the sale of Hill’s slaves.  The scene is pathetic in tone and moral outrage.

Mr. H. R. W. Hill resided long in Nashville, Tennessee; was a zealous, active, and very liberal member of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. He spared no pains or expense to have his slaves instructed and benefited by religion. As he became very wealthy, in the pursuit of commerce, several large plantations, with the slaves on them, near New Orleans, where the family resided, came into his possession. He built churches on the plantations, supported missionaries, and did everything he thought best to make them intelligent and happy. Last year—1854 [actually 1853]—he died, and left his vast estate to his son, after having been munificent during life, and at death, to benevolent objects.

After his death his negroes were all, or the greatest part of them, sold, at public sale. The following is the advertisement which appeared in the National Intelligencer, giving notice of the sale:

Will be sold at auction, at Bank’s Arcade, on Magazine street, in the city of New Orleans, at 12 o’clock, on Tuesday, January 16th, 1855, the slaves at the same hour on Thursday, January 18th, and the following days, for the account of the estate of the late H. R. W. Hill, without reserve, all that extensive and valuable sugar estate, known as the Live-Oak Plantation, etc., including two hundred and sixty choice plantation slaves, accustomed to the culture of sugar and cotton, and considered to be the best gangs in the south, and comprising all the requisite mechanics, such as sugar-makers, engineers, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, bricklayers, choice house servants, cooks, and field hands, and are to be sold in families and singly, by a descriptive catalogue. The slaves are guaranteed in title only.”

The sales took place in New Orleans. Handbills were printed with large black letters, and the words mechanics, seamstresses, cooks, etc., stood out prominent. Advertisements and editorial notices appeared in the papers. Circulars, on fine paper, were printed, giving particulars of each one to be sold, all being duly numbered. The following is the description of the sale, given by a correspondent of the New York Tribune, February 16, 1855 :

‘On the morning of the sale I wended my way to Bank’s Arcade, determined to witness the scene. I found the Arcade to be a very large building, situated in the very center of business, and used as a hall for mass meetings of the various political parties, and it is said will accommodate five thousand people on such occasions. A large bar or counter, about one hundred feet in length, placed directly opposite the entrance, and some half a dozen tenders are constantly occupied in dealing out  poison at a dime a drink. Opposite to the bar the poor negroes were marshaled into line ; the men and boys were uniformed with short jackets made of cottonade, pants of the same material, hickory shirts, black brogans, and tarpaulin hats. The women were all clad in common calicoes, and a common handkerchief tied around the head. All the slaves were labeled, a tag or card being tied to the  breast of each, giving the name, age, and number of the negro, so as to correspond with the printed catalogue.  

‘It is impossible for me to give you a faithful description of the scene, as no pen can picture the horrors of it. One hundred and seven poor slaves were there assembled together for the last time in this world. They had for many years all had been living on Mr. Hill’s plantation, as one family. Most of them were brought up by Hill. They had always been blessed with a kind master. They were all members of one Church, which had been established among themselves. Old men and women, over seventy years of age — some of them blind — were to be separated from their children and grandchildren; husbands about to be torn from their wives ; children sold into slavery, never to know a mother’s love, or have a father’s protection and care. In a few hours the fate of all would be decided. All the slaves were crying; many of them were apparently calm in their sufferings, and had a hope that they might fall into the hands of a kind master; but others exhibited their feelings in violent outbursts of passion.

One old woman, who was put down in the catalogue as number 40, Daliah, age sixty-six years, milk-woman, etc., was in great distress, and several of the small children were clinging to her and moaning, half frightened to death, and one of her own sons, about thirty-six years of age, was receiving her farewell blessing. With her left arm clasping him to her bosom, and her right hand placed on his head, she repeated these words, ‘Bob, I shall never see you again, never, never! O, God! it will break my heart ! Your poor old mother will die!’ Other poor slaves were crowding about the poor old woman, all anxious to take leave of one who had been with them from their youth up, and to receive her blessing. She appeared to be regarded as a kind of mother to them all. I noticed among the spectators many northern men who were here on a visit, and many a sympathetic tear was shed by them. ‘

At twelve o’clock, the auctioneer mounted the stand. On either side of him were placed plans of real estate, and large posters of future sales of slaves and other property.  Behind him were two clerks seated at a table, to down the names of the purchasers. On the table he placed a bottle of brandy and a tumbler, for the use of the auctioneer, who glories in the name of Beard.  Before commencing the sale, this Mr. Beard smiled approvingly on the audience, and delivered the following address :

‘Gentlemen buyers, I am about to offer you some of the most valuable property ever put up, at auction, and on most favorable terms — a credit of one year. The slaves are very choice, and all brought up by our lamented fellow-citizen, Harry Hill.  Most of the women, you will notice, are pregnant, and of good stock. I must impress it upon your minds that these slaves are exhibited under great disadvantage, as, after being worked hard, they were hurried on board the steamer, and have had a hard time of it. They will look twenty-five cent better after being here a few days. Gentlemen buyers, before I sell this gang of negroes, I will put up 3 boys, who were sold at the last sale, but the papers of the purchasers were not satisfactory to us. It is, gentlemen, a credit to New Orleans, that, out of the large number of slaves sold on last Friday, only three of the purchasers have been rejected. It speaks well for the prosperity of our state.’

It is due, however, to Mr. Hill, to state that he made particular request that his slaves should be kept all together, if possible, and in case of their being sold, that husbands and wives should not be separated. On this account the husbands and wives were sold together.  There is at least one protest against slavery in making this arrangement.  When Bob and his wife were sold for sixteen hundred and seventy-five dollars, he was about to bid goodbye to his mother, but was hurried out of the room, just as his mother was put on the block.  The auctioneer praised her as a “good and motherly old wench — good and very useful to take care of children and milk cows.” In this way the whole Church was disposed of.

Twenty years before this scene Hill, like many of his contemporaries, was concerned with a runaway slave.  In the greater Nashville, TN area, he took out the following ad:

[From the Randolph Recorder: 16 January 1835]:

“$100 REWARD.  Ran away from the Plantation of H. R. W. HILL, two miles northwest of Covington, about the 20th October last, a negro man named STEPHEN. He is about 30 years old, 5 feet two or three inches high, remarkably black, speaks very mildly, is obedient when sober but quarrelsome and impudent when intoxicated; he is very fond of spirits. He carried off with him a black wool hat, brown jeans roundabout lined throughout with heavy domestic, brown pantaloons, and generally wore check shirts, though he had others. The above reward will be paid on his safe delivery to me, or forty dollars for his confinement in jail so that I may get him.”

Hill’s concern for order probably overshadowed the apparent regard he gave to the well-being of his labor supply.  It was through their toil that he was enriching himself, along with his cotton trade.

That he gave of his wealth to help build the civilization of the antebellum South, especially its churches and other cultural institutions typifies the morals of Hill’s time.  The value of slave labor to the plantation system and the cotton trade was high.  There is no doubt that Hill thought he was being the best leader he could be at that time in ensuring the needs of his slaves were met and that they had a religious life that would service his needs for order and contentment on the plantation.

Hill’s later life included gifts to mission for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  The following is a report of one such instance, with reference to his gift at the latter part:

Methodist Mission

Hill was a victim of the Yellow Fever that plagued New Orleans around 1853.  His wife succumbed to it in April of that year.  He is reported to have gone to his Live Oak Plantation in the summer and ministered to a dying slave who was a dear friend of the family.  In his ministrations he is said to have contracted the fever and died in September of that same year.

Silver Cup offered on Ebay that was a gift from H. R. W. Hill to a friend

Silver Cup offered on Ebay that was a gift from H. R. W. Hill to a friend

Having been born in 1797 and dying during his 55th year on earth, Hill accomplished much, and left a legacy of generosity.  He was at the time of his death Grand Master of Masons in Louisiana, and the Masons have erected a monument claiming his remains are lying in the Masonic Cemetery in New Orleans, but it is thought his son James Dick Hill removed his remains along with those of his mother Margaret McAlister Hill to Nashville where they were placed along with his own in the James D. Hill Family Vault in City Cemetery.  In a letter published along with H. R. W. Hill’s will in the New York Times, in 1853, Hill instructs his executors John M. Bass and John Armfield that “I want my negroes well treated.  But for Abolitionism, I should have been able to do more for them.”

Riverboat named for H. R. W. Hill, which later tragically burned up, according to reports

Riverboat named for H. R. W. Hill, which later tragically burned up, according to reports

Reference:  Lives of American Merchants, Volume II, by Freeman Hunt, New York, 1858.

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A Barony in the Mountains of Southwest Virginia

If you drive through Russell County, Virginia, you will eventually find yourself maneuvering through the beautiful pastures of the Stuart Land and Cattle Company, a farming outfit that has raised some of the finest beef cattle in America, for longer than any outfit like it has existed.  The company is said to own about 16,000 acres today, but once held as much as 45,000 acres in the scenic majesty of the Clinch Mountain range.  A new book has just come out on the Stuart farms and it is a very good piece of literature about the area.  Kathy Shearer, who owns and operates the Clinch Mountain Press in Emory, Virginia, has written Working for Stuarts: Life on One of the Oldest & Largest Cattle Farms East of the Mississippi.  It details the uniqueness of the story of this great enterprise and the people who worked and resided on the large acreage of the farms.

My ministry began by being appointed to serve the churches at Belfast and Midway in the northeastern corner of Russell County, Virginia.  I didn’t know then, but the communities there were somewhat dependent upon the Stuart enterprises in the early days.  Belfast Mills grew up at the convergence of a large mountain creek and a bit of the old Fincastle Turnpike, where a milling community was formed for area farmers to use.  Later a school was built on property just across the road from the Belfast United Methodist Church, where students came from the area to learn the basics of education.  The parsonage I resided in there was built around 1912 by one of the Stuarts, who were stalwart in their support of the Methodist church in the county.

Once home to Governor Stuart, this mansion on the Elk Garden Farm of Stuart Land and Cattle Company belongs to descendants of Smiley Ratcliff.

Once home to Governor Stuart, this mansion on the Elk Garden Farm of Stuart Land and Cattle Company belongs to descendants of Smiley Ratcliff.

I interviewed several men who had served as pastor on the Belfast Circuit before me.  Rev. Gerald McFarland remembered the circuit being composed of some eight churches, including Belfast, Harmony, Bradshaw, Clifton, Barrett’s, Midway, Green’s Chapel, and Dennison.  He related that it was the practice of the day (in the 1960s) to go over to the Stuart’s “Clifton Farm” and borrow a horse from the farm manager to ride up and down the hollows there to visit the church people who belonged to the Clifton Church.  He also told a tale of preaching there and the stove pipe fell out of the ceiling, making a thick cloud of black soot rise over the congregation.

My time in the pastorate at Belfast and Midway allowed me to discover what was left of the old circuit.  The circuit had been reduced somewhat during the late 1960s and early 1970s as the farm families moved out and the crowds dwindled.  Clifton, Harmony, Green’s Chapel, Bradshaw, and Barrett’s were closed.  All but Barrett’s were eventually bought by independent groups who operated what I call “mountain” churches therein.  Barrett’s burned down, on the river road on the western end of the Clifton Farm.    I tried to either meet folks in those congregations or worship with them when I could.  I was able to get Bradshaw’s congregation to host a thanksgiving service one year where we brought Midway and Belfast to their church for the evening.  The service had to be cut short because it was snowing the whole time and folks were worried the roads would get too slick.

Farming still dominates the economy in this area, even though several of the farm families have had to find new ways to support themselves.  The old rules of living in a Stuart-owned home while keeping the place clean and providing oneself a garden spot no longer apply.

Some of my favorite times on the Belfast circuit included riding over on Clifton Farm and enjoying the bucolic scenery.  It was good to clear the mind and rejuvenate the heart.  The owners of the farms (Clifton, Rosedale, and the Loop) attended the Elk Garden congregation, which was not far from Belfast.  Their home and several nearby residences stand as regal testament to a way of life that once supported a large economy in the mountains of this corner of Virginia.

I highly recommend Kathy’s book.  It is a large project and does a wonderful job with history, telling the story of this operation and it’s effect on the county.

Reference:  For a great article on the present owner and operator of the Stuart Land and Cattle Company, see http://www.cattlenetwork.com/cattle-news/Im-a-Drover-Grace-and-tenacity–275995751.html

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How Loving and Leading Can Be a Faithful Response in Today’s Church

Daily I read posts on social media about what a terrible shape the church is in here in the US, and how poorly it is being led by its clergy.  Certainly the truth is contained within these diatribes against the excesses of “professional” leadership.  Yet I believe there is an abundance of glossing over faithfulness that is being practiced by all sorts of leaders in all sorts of places.  The church is a diverse body of people with diverse views and a variable record of effectiveness over time in different geographical locations.  Clergy leadership must assess and lead a moving target with few ready resources, vying with multiple challenges while being under fire from antagonistic members within and an unfriendly culture without.  It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t look like it will change any time soon.

Nebo ChurchWhen I was a college student at Emory & Henry, in the southwest corner of Virginia, a school founded by Methodists to prepare leaders in a variety of fields, including the church, I was intrigued by leadership models I was exposed to there.  One was Professor W. C. Mason, an ordained UMC clergy person who had become chaplain and Director of Religious Life, as well as chair of the Religion Department of the school.  Mason influenced a generation of ministers with his warm personability, his studious love of learning, and his ease of making practical suggestions for leading and serving.  His example led me to embrace a sense of calling not only to serve the church anywhere, but to focus particularly upon the needs of the churches in southwestern Virginia, a region long beset with economic challenges and characterized as part of the Appalachian Region.  These churches were living in communities long ignored by their state Capitol, as well as the ecclesiastical overseers in the center of our annual conference at Knoxville.  They had developed a sense that there was no reliable help from outside their own circles of influence, and thus they had developed a real problem with trust which exhibited itself in a fear of strangers and officials.  After all, when outsiders only seem to want your money or other resources and never seem to show up when you’re hurting, it’s easy to view the world in a less than optimistic way.  So I came to embrace Southwest Virginia as my people and the focus of my ministry.  This isn’t a popular view in the annual conference of which I am a part.  Most clergy want to serve around the larger population centers, in Knoxville, Chattanooga, or at least the TriCities of Bristol, Kingsport, or Johnson City.  But southwest Virginia is viewed as a wasteland, a place where a career cannot be made, where you go to be punished, a dumping ground for those of us who can’t be trusted to lead in places that count.  One superintendent publicly declared once that our Annual Conference should just cede the Virginia churches to the Virginia Conference, as they were more of a burden than a viable mission field.Calvary Church, Clear Fork

In the midst of this attitude and the present cultural and economic forces that are at odds with Christian values and human thriving, I have served almost thirty years (with a five year hiatus to serve in a town in Tennessee, where I constantly talked about southwest Virginia- they were glad when I left!).  I have developed a deep love for southwest Virginia.  I am so blessed to have met many exemplary people who have lived faithful lives and died faithful deaths here.  There are some wonderful, loving ways people are living their lives here as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It isn’t a vast wasteland at all.  Here people are surrounded by the beauty of creation.  Here their lives are centered upon their families and neighbors.  Neighbors truly know what it means to be a neighbor here.  Church houses are not all that modern here, but some are, and the presence of a church building inspires those who pass by.  Ministry is done here in kind.  Food is taken to hurting and grieving friends.  Wood is chopped and delivered for winter heat.  Youth and children are treated like little kings and queens.  Programs are simple and devoid of fanciful things, but kids thrive as they get loved and shown how to love others.  Things aren’t perfect here, but many families and individuals are trying to be faithful in spite of all the odds against them.

North holston umcI may not be appointed to serve many more Virginia locations, but the time I’ve spent here has shown me what faithfulness looks like.  Southwest Virginia has left its mark on my soul.  For that I’m thankful.

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When Frost Falls on the Kudzu

I was driving down the Nicklesville Road, one of my favorite back roads in Southwest Virginia, as it meanders from Gate City, in Scott County, to Dickensonville up in Russell County.  There are a few places where along this two-lane route (enumerated as State Route 72), one can view a strongly rooted patch of Kudzu vine.  The vine grows by the yard during the warm summer months.  I have sat through long meetings and escaped the moment by fantasizing how the Kudzu might actually reach across the road in those places where it grows on both sides, and in my imagination I’ve seen its tendrils reach across and meet in the middle, swallowing all the traffic that goes by for several days.  I might need medication for that, I’m not sure.

Kudzu grows and consumes the world.

Kudzu grows and consumes the world.

Some of us in the part of the country where Kudzu thrives have imagined it taking over the world.  It’s vines cover houses, barns, abandoned machinery, and all kinds of things, choking life out of trees and softening the hard lines of power poles and just about any imaginable thing that sits still long enough to be covered.  It has long been hailed as a problem plant.  Yet it continues to thrive, and grow, and spread.

But as in all of life, there is an end to the vitality of the kudzu vines.  In September this year we’ve already begun to see a few mornings with frost.  The cold temperatures begin to kill the leaves, and soon they will fall off of the vines.  After a bit the vine-covered patches will begin to look like messy hair growing over all kinds of things.  In the cold part of the year you can see what is beneath the vines, the infrastructure of the kudzu.

It’s difficult to guard the landscape of our hearts from the invasive vines of time.  Without being watchful, we find ourselves covered with things that don’t matter, things that grow to consume us, choking out the vitality of our souls.  Little by little, and day by day, we become covered with things that will destroy us.

Pray for the frost to come and descend upon the Kudzu vines of our lives.  Then we shall be able to move forward into holiness.

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Mountain Dew Time

Found on http://www.flickriver.com/photos/84669354@N00/500850097/ Taken by Cowboy Geoff, and copyright 2006.

Found on http://www.flickriver.com/photos/84669354@N00/500850097/
Taken by Cowboy Geoff, and copyright 2006.

One of the great pleasures of living where I grew up was that just down the road a little piece, within easy walking distance of my grandparents’ house and barn, was a little store we called “The Farm Store.”  Later its name was changed to “State Line Market,” but we still called it the Farm Store since that’s what people do (call things by their old names as long as they can remember to.)

Every time I spent time with Pappaw, we’d take a break around 10:00 or 10:30 am and walk down to the store and have “Mountain Dew” time.  This was back in the day soda was bottled in glass bottles and the Mountain Dew brand had a bottle with a little hill billy on it (I can use that term, since I am one), with a picture of the cork flying through the little guy’s hat.  The motto “It’ll Tickle Your Innards” was emblazoned upon the bottle.  We’d pick our dope and go find a bottle opener and stand around the cashier’s counter swapping tales as we refreshed ourselves.  The workers at that store were like an extension of the family.  They always seemed to welcome our company as we took our Mountain Dew breaks.  We’d usually come back around 3 p.m. and do it all again.

Time passed and the bottlers changed how they bottled our favorite soda, so my Pappaw talked with the delivery truck driver one day and found out he could get Mountain Dew delivered to his house in glass bottles that were smaller and not labeled for resale.  We would get a couple cases of it, and one of Pepsi for Mammaw.  We were living like kings.

Now the sugar content wasn’t good for us, and we would have done better with water, but it was the time spent with Pappaw when he took his breaks and cleaned the tobacco out of his mouth, and brought out a bottle of “Good ole Mountain Dew” to share that made my time with him really special.  Usually he’d commence talking about something, sharing a story of his work experience at the Kingsport Press, or a family history tale from a previous age.  This time was every bit as important as the time I spent in formal learning at the schoolhouse.  “Dope time,” as he called it, would usually always bring out at least one good tale.  Sometimes I had already heard the tale, but it was good to hear it a second time and listen for nuances of differences in whatever version he was telling.

I’ll never forget the time he told me that about the time I was born he had a dream that he had died and gone to heaven.  He said it was a place so beautiful he couldn’t describe it.  But he was told he had to go back, because his job on earth wasn’t over.  They didn’t tell him what his job was, but he would look at me and and take a sip of Mountain Dew, and smile.  He was truly placed in my life as a blessing.  And Mountain Dew Time was our best time of the day.

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Go Rest High on that Mountain: Reflections on a Mountain Man’s Life

My wife’s father died last Saturday.  It’s been quite a struggle for him.  As we laid him to rest beside his wife, the best chicken-leg cooker in America, I couldn’t help but reflect on his life and presence among us.

Claude Beavers was born during the height of the Appalachian Coal mining industry.  His dad was a coal miner, and he became one too.  He was raised on a hill not far from the little coal camp of Amonate, Virginia.  His early life was composed of going to school at Beech Fork School, wrestling with his cousins, and hunting and fishing all over the hills and hollers around his home place.  He finished eighth grade and began to forge his life as a young man.  He was working at a sawmill when he was 19 and married a young lady by the name of Edith Bandy.  Soon two children were born and he found work at the mines to support his young family.

A third child came along a little later (my wife), and Claude continued working to make his house a home for his little family.  They lived at this time on Sinking Waters in the Bandy Community of Tazewell County.  A year later after my wife’s birth, Claude had a tragic accident when he went to work.  A “Roof Fall” in the mines is one of the many dangers there.  He was victim of one about a month after joining the UMWA.  A man whose work ethic wasn’t very good, and who missed work many days, happened to be there when the rocks fell on Claude.  This man lifted the biggest rock and two other workers lifted the rest.  Claude survived but his back was broken and he commenced a long journey through recovery of injury.  He was paralyzed from the waist down, and was told he would never walk again.

But did I tell you this mountain man named Claude Beavers was from the Appalachian Mountains?  You see, there’s something indelibly courageous about true mountaineers.  You can tell them, but you can’t tell them much.  They’re stubborn.  And stubborn isn’t always a bad thing.  Claude was sent to Fishersville, Virginia to rehab in a facility there.  This was 1968, and the technology wasn’t as good as it is now.  After a time, he began to learn to walk with the assistance of canes and braces.

His mood wasn’t always good, but in this new life as a disabled coal miner, he refused to give up.  Since he couldn’t work at the mines any more, he made sure his family had what they needed.  He put out the prettiest gardens anyone has ever seen.  A little holler behind where they lived provided the perfect spot, and there, with assistance of those braces and canes, Claude worked and grew corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, cabbage, salad peas, and whatever he could grow.  He shared these with other members of the family and neighbors as well.

His tiny house had a back bedroom for him, especially during painful days when changes in weather would cause him to ache miserably.  Other times he stayed in the Living Room watching Westerns and NASCAR, his favorite driver being No 3, Dale Earnhardt.  Here he tended the fire in the Warm Morning stove, keeping wood and coal going, and holding court whenever the rare visitor came by.  Occasionally, if he wanted to give someone a knife, which was a treasured possession to him, he would make them pay him a penny in return.  This tradition is so the knife wouldn’t cut their friendship.

I won’t say that Claude was a perfect man or even a pleasant one.  There were many days his mood was colored by his pain, and he grumped a great deal.  But he was a proud man and he tried to make the best of his situation even though it was difficult, very trying and at times seemed downright impossible.

He drove himself without assistance wherever he needed to go.  His wife never drove, so it was his job to take his wife and daughter to the Bandy Community Freewill Baptist Church and drop them off and go pick them back up again each Sunday.  He also drove to the bank, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, and up the hollers to hunt and fish.

The day I proposed to my wife, we went back to her house and asked her mother if we should tell Claude what we had decided.  She said she’d go in the back bedroom and check to see what mood he was in.  He was sitting there cleaning his shotgun, so she returned and said, “Let’s not do that right now.”  We agreed and told him at a later time, during which he pitched a fit, since it meant I would be taking away one of his best helpers.  Fortunately for him and us, we were appointed to churches nearby and stayed for six or seven years there after we married.

His latest years were tough for him.  His wife succumbed to pancreatic cancer in October, 2007.  Now he lived alone, and had to begin depending on help outside the family to keep his needs met.  He began to develop kidney failure and with it a form of dementia.  After several falls and emergency runs to the hospital, he was finally placed in a nursing facility where he spent the remaining two years and about two months of his life.

Saturday my wife and I, and her cousin were sitting with him in his room when he drew his last belabored breath in this life.   One of his last requests was for my wife to take him “up the mountain.”  When men from his family say that, they are referring to something more final than a trip up a hill.

Someone sang “Go Rest High on that Mountain” at his funeral services on Tuesday.  It was hard to hold back the tears.

IMG_2920

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I Wish That Cow Would “Moo.”

Everyone has their preferences about death.  Sometimes we talk about it before it happens, and if we don’t, well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know some different customs over the past 26 years as a pastor in the Mountains of Virginia and Tennessee (my native country).  For instance, in the coal fields around Richlands, Virginia, it is customary to keep the casket open through the whole service.  After a night of “visitation,”  mourners gather the next day for the funeral service.  There’s usually singing, followed by someone reading the obituary, followed by a scripture reading and some “preaching.”  The preaching differs depending on who’s doing the preaching, but it varies from a quiet, reflective message that weaves scriptural truth around stories of the deceased’s life, to wind-sucking warnings against dying without your “fire insurance.”  I’ll let that sink in a bit.

Then it is customary after the preaching is over to parade the crowd by the open casket.  Some will pause and look inside, others will cast their eyes in another direction and keep walking.  Others will go out a different way.  The family then goes last, spending their last moments with their loved one, sometimes breaking down into emotional torrents of sobbing and shaking.

I found that some fellowship with the funeral directors was necessary when going to the funeral home in the role of pastor.  During the visitation, I would sometimes sit in the office and talk with these folks.  They have some unique stories.

Once I was talking with Bob Bennett from Honaker Funeral Home and he was the Jerry Clower of Funeral Directors.  Great storyteller.  He told me that when he was starting out in the funeral business, he decided to apprentice with the Hurst-Scott Funeral Home in Richlands.  He said that one day they had a burial over in Buchanan County (the heart of the coal fields).  After a long funeral, the procession began to the mountain grave yard.  He said they turned off somewhere around Keen Mountain and just kept winding and winding up mountain roads.  The longer they drove, the narrower the road got.  Finally, he said, it was just two tire tracks in dirt.

ice covered road in scott co

He said that they came finally to a little mountain cemetery, surrounded by a ram-shackle fence.  The funeral home tent was standing in the grave yard, the grave digger standing nearby.  As the lead car (in which he was riding with Mr Scott of Hurst-Scott) slowly got to the fence, they stopped.  The grave digger came straight to them.  Mr Scott rolled the window down to hear what he had to say.

“Mr Scott,” the grave digger’s voice came with nervous tremor, “we’ve got a problem.”

“What’s that?” Mr Scott had been through numerous burials, he had much experience, so problems were no cause of concern to him.

“Well, . . . er, . . . an old cow’s got down in the grave, and we can’t get her out.”  The grave digger began pacing back and forth.

By this time people are getting out of their vehicles, so they know the funeral will begin soon, and there’s no turning back at this point.

Mr Scott, thinking quickly, said, “Well, take some of that green tarp up there, and pull it over the grave.  We’ll just hope that old cow doesn’t say anything during the service.”

And, Bob, told me with finality, “We had that service with the cow in the grave.”

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Thoughts on Halloween

I think it no accident that Halloween is scheduled for Autumn.

The beauty of trees showing forth their fall colors reminds us that we are headed into the long, solitary winter.  Autumn is a season wherein it isn’t hard to think about death and dying.  Crops are finished, harvest is upon us, the weather is getting cooler, and daylight is growing shorter.

In this season it is easy to draw parallels to life’s cycles and we eventually find ourselves in the “autumn of life,” headed toward our eventual death and whatever lies beyond for each of us.  Primal culture used this season to mock death with rituals that including masquerading as ghosts and goblins.  After the Christianization of Europe, the church developed All Saints Day to somewhat redeem this habit.  The celebration in the church was designed to redirect people to think about those who had died in service of the Lord, the people we consider saints, or “Hallowed ones” [Holy ones].   It was customary to begin celebrating any holy day on the evening before, as the day began conceptually at sundown of the previous day.  So “All Hallowed’s Day” was preceded by “All Hallowed’s Evening”, shortened into “Hallow E’en,” or as we now say it “Halloween.”

There are always those who assert that this is a devilish holiday, and surely there are groups who practice dark and perhaps even wicked things on Halloween, but it also a time for people of faith to practice hospitality.

I served a church in Lee County, Virginia where about 400 children would come to town (the population of the town was only 900), and “trick or treat” in our neighborhood.  My wife was always excited to meet this crowd with enough treat bags for each one.  We were impressed that each child, unprompted, would respond to our treats with a well-rehearsed “Thank you.”  One year I even invited the youth group to join us on the porch, as our house faced Main Street, and be part of the giving.

There are holidays I enjoy more than Halloween, but it has come to mark a remembrance that even as autumn pulls our thoughts toward the end of life, we have joy in knowing that the end is only a beginning for people of faith.  So, let the darkness come, and even death’s cold grip, but there is more beyond it for people of faith.  A glory greater than autumn’s leaves and harvest:  Life eternal in heaven with God.

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Remembering Kallie

Kallie in back yard

Kallie enjoying a little sunshine in the back yard.

Daddy's GirlKallie and meKallie and CorionKallie at Pburg

Kallie was born in Greene County, Tennessee, around the 3rd day of December, 2002.  She was part of a litter of four pups that lived to adulthood.  Her original family put an ad in a trading post paper and my eyes saw that ad, and soon I was driving over to the banks of the Nolichuckey River to hunt this little German Shepherd-mix dog that was to be “free to a good home.”

My eyes first fell on two little brown and black marked pups, males, that were fuzzy and had big paws, and were running around, bravely yapping at one another and my Jeep.  I was informed by the lady of the house that these were already spoken for.  So I looked around and spotted a little short-haired black and white dog.  It, too, was male.  I inquired about it, and the lady of the house sheepishly told me that this dog was becoming a favorite of her children, so they would like to keep it.  I looked in exasperation for another and saw none.  I shrugged my arms and said, “Is there any other?”  She said there was one female that was in this litter, but it was stuck up under the smoke-house, and wouldn’t come out.

About that time a large, momma German Shepherd, full-blooded, came walking past us.  She was gorgeous, and had ears standing straight on her noble head.  The lady in charge told me, “We don’t know who the daddy dog was, but these are all mixed pups.”  Her son told her he was willing to try and reach the female pup.  He crawled, wiggled, and reached but came up short.  I thought, “This was a waste of time.”  The lady saw me getting set to go home and asked me if she could bring it to me.  I told her where I lived.  I said, “That’s a long way.  I tell you what, if you catch the dog, bring it to Weber City and I’ll meet you there, that’s about half-way.”  She agreed.  I left, looking anxiously at the beautiful mother dog, and wondering if I would ever get one.

A few days later the phone call came and I was back in the Jeep, traveling this time only 45 minutes to Weber City, and met this lady at a store near my ancestral home.  The puppy was beautiful.  She seemed fearful in her first car ride, and didn’t want to meet anyone new.  I turned her on her back and laid my hand on her belly.  She wiggled, and then turned over.  I was told that was a test that if she didn’t turn over, she’d be a good dog.  But I wanted her pretty badly by now and took her into my Jeep.  She buried her head under the front seat.  I looked up and spotted a billboard above the parking lot.  It was advertising a new restaurant in Gate City, called “Kallie’s.”  I thought, “Ok, little’n.  You must be Kallie.”

The stench of fresh cow manure accompanied us all the way home.  Kallie had gotten in a fresh pile before she left her mother.  I planned on getting in the garage, shutting the door, and letting her out to see what she’d do.  That plan worked only after I pulled this dog from under the seat.  She was not sure she wanted to be there.  And she got away as I was picking her up and headed for the area under the dash board, climbing like she wanted to get to the motor.  I gently pulled and picked her up, and set her down on the garage floor.  She went right to the area halfway between the tires where I couldn’t reach her.  I kept trying until finally I got her in my arms, and held her tight.  I asked Tammie, my wife, to get me a wet towel so I could try to wipe this stinky pup down.

As I gently wiped her fuzzy coat, and held her and talked to her, she began to stop fighting and began to see that I meant her no harm.  Soon she was licking my face.  I thought about how God does this same thing with us as he washes us in the waters of baptism, holding us as we resist, and removing the stench of sin from our spirits.  Soon we find our selves looking into our Father’s face, and realize, we belong to Him and He belongs to us.

By the time we moved to Jonesborough, Tennessee, not far from Kallie’s origin, it was time to think about having her fixed so she wouldn’t have a big litter of puppies herself.  I arranged it and the Vet took her for the night.  I picked her up the next day and she seemed upset.  I took her home and let her come into the finished portion of the basement to sleep off her anesthesia and pain medicine.  I was sitting in my recliner, just reading when all at once, Kallie got up from her bed and came to my chair.  She looked up into my eyes with a longing I didn’t quite understand.  I thought about it and decided she wanted on my lap.  I lowered the recliner slowly, and she got up to me.  I pulled her up to my lap very gently and reclined the chair again.  She laid longways on me, with her head as close to my chin as she could get, and her tail between my feet.  She slept for over an hour on me like this.  I thought about the trust she was putting in me.  I felt overwhelmed and thankful.

Kallie shepherded our family.  Always looking out for anything that would be trouble, like a stray cat, or dog, and certain strangers.  She was always herding us away from what she perceived to be trouble.

She finally earned her way to the coveted spot beneath our bed as her special place to sleep through the night.  I learned to get up early and take her out.  She patiently waited for the snoring to end so she could get relief.

During our days with a foster child, who we have kept for the past eight years, Kallie would gladly join us in the car for the daily ride to school in the mornings and evenings.  She enjoyed a little leftover ice cream from our cones and eggs from our plates.

Except for those times when she got the storm jitters and had to seek cover, her courage and alertness were always on.  The last few years she began to go downhill, having trouble with her back legs, manifesting itself when she tried to go up or down steps.  She found a way to slow down, concentrate, and try a little harder.

Her arthritis led to having to have aspirin therapy each day.  She didn’t like the aspirin, but loved the cheese it was wrapped in.

I was gone nine days for vacation this year, her longest Kennel time ever.  When I picked her up, she kept putting her head up to see if I was still up in the front of the car.   It was obvious she missed being loved by us those days.

She came down with a nasty infection in one of her back legs.  I was confronted with a choice.  Either doctor her with antibiotics, and watch her continue to decline, or let her go on to her maker.  I had known this day was coming, as day after day I had seen her limp and move so gingerly, and sleep continuously, and drink loads of water.  She wanted nothing more than to be as close to me as she could.

On Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, I made the decision to let the vet put her down.  I stayed in the room and watched through a flood of tears.  The peacefulness of her body after the medicine took effect was my only consolation that day.

To be loved by a creature of God’s is one of life’s highest forms of blessing.  Dogs are certainly a form of grace.  Unconditional, loyal, and trusting.

Someone sent me a poem called “Rainbow bridge.”

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together…. 

Author unknown…

It just so happened that someone also posted a picture of the valley where Kallie rests.  The post was the day Kallie took her last breath.  Here’s the picture:

rainbow in thompson valley

Picture by WS Wolf, Tazewell County fb page

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Communion Chronicles

CommunionBlogPicI don’t know when I first took communion.  I have since learned that whenever it was, it was done improperly.  My home church didn’t always do things by the book.  And thank God for that.

My earliest memories of church involve going with my grandfather up to the front of the church.  His solemn mood made me acutely aware that this was something serious.  We went and knelt at the end of the altar rail, over on the right side.  The preacher would come around with a crystal dish filled with cracker crumbs.  I would watch my Pappaw slide one off the dish for himself, and then get another for me.  I came to learn it was an unsalted saltine-type cracker.  What was special was the way we ate it.  We waited until everyone was served, then we all ate at once.  I remember the taste of that cracker crumb to this day.  Clean.  Crispy.  Well, I don’t know that I knew this then, I mean how could I have had a concept of it, but this cracker, taken at the altar rail, kneeling on my knees beside my best buddy, my Pappaw, I think the only way to describe it was “holy.”

Well, that wasn’t all.  The pastor then came around with a larger metal tray, upon which were tiny glasses with grape juice in them.  My grandfather’s fingers reached out to pluck up a glass, and handed it to me.  I held it until he got his, and the others got theirs and then we drank.  I loved the grape juice.  It was something we never had at home.  And it was so deeply purple.  And it was a challenge to get the entire glass full because a little drop always stayed on the bottom, and all the other glasses had those drops.  I loved the taste, and the glass and the moment.

Then we returned to our seats and waited, often three months, until the next time.

I have been a big fan of communion since those early times at the altar of my home church.  I was able to talk the communion steward into giving me the leftovers, and often took home a half-bottle of grape juice in those quarterly communion celebrations.

What I found was improper about my taking communion as a child was that I wasn’t baptized.  Dr Dennis Campbell, once dean of the Divinity School at Duke, informed me in a Methodism class once that it wasn’t proper to give communion to unbaptized people.  I’m glad my church didn’t say anything.  I was supposed to be baptized but the Baptist side of the family found out just in the nick of time to abort that activity, and I had to wait until after the “age of accountability.”  But I still got to participate with my Pappaw in communion.  And that’s a good thing.

Most of my colleagues can tell tales of when they have presided at communion and people have done strange and unexpected things.  Like eating the bread before they have a chance to dip it in the chalice whenever they’ve practiced “intinction.”  That’s dipping a piece of bread in a common cup.  This style of communion became pretty prevalent in the 1980s, and continues to be used, although there are those who don’t find it savory as they imagine it will make them physically sick to share communion with someone who might have germs.  It might make them sick, but they’ll die holy, so what’s the beef?  One of my former church members referred to “inctinction” as “Dip and Drip.”  I have found at least one person will eat their bread before dipping when we do this, no matter the size of the crowd.

Once a man took the chalice out of my hand and took a big, ole swig of it, then gave it back with a grin.  I’m glad he was at the end of the line.

In our Methodist tradition we don’t drink the rest of the wine like some of our more sacramental brothers and sisters will.  But there has been a movement among worship professors in seminaries to encourage people to come up and consume what’s left over after worship has ended.  They say it enhances fellowship.  Otherwise you’re supposed to throw the bread crumbs outside and pour the juice out on the ground, so it goes back to creation.

That would be a good thing to teach.  I failed to do that apparently in one church.  My communion steward in a little mountain church not far from where I now live, seemed to always have a hard time getting the concept of a bread loaf.  She mostly brought hot dog buns.  In my early days I celebrated Holy Communion once a month, so she could be forgiven for complaining, but she was also pretty skimpy with stuff.  I found out the communion juice was a problem too.  In fact I had a hard time convincing her that she needed to use grape “juice,” not grape “drink.”  The drink was like a sugary beverage, the juice was 100 percent juice.  I was taught that Welch’s brand was best because the Welch family perfected the process that enabled grape juice to be stored for long periods without becoming wine.  That was important in the days of the Temperance and Prohibition movement, so many of our churches used that brand.

What I didn’t know was that this well-meaning lady was pouring the juice back into the bottle after communion, and sticking it the refrigerator for the next month.  Then she’d show up with those infernal buns.  Have you ever tried to be serious and holy with a hot dog bun?  Hard to do, let me tell you.  Then as we were serving communion one time, someone dipped their bread in the pretty little cup we were using and a real long string of something attached to the bread that had to be Jesus’ sinews.  It was pretty gross though, and after that I brought my own communion supplies.  All she would have had to do would have been told me.  But we didn’t need Jesus strings in the grape juice.

Legend has it that in the olden days when the “host” was reserved (the leftover bread) after they had prayed over it, it was possible for a mouse to get in it and they had long debates over whether it was really communion if a mouse ate it, especially one unbaptized.

I don’t know how that turned out, since I’m not in those more liturgical traditions, but the mass was always done in Latin.  There was one line in the mass that was accompanied by the ringing of a bell.  The priest would say “Hoc est corpus meum.”  If they said it fast enough, it sounded like “hocus-pocus.”

There’s nothing magic about bread and wine.  But there’s something deeply holy about sharing it with people you love.  And if you get the leftovers, that’s not bad either.

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The Healing of the Broken Rooster

I met Dana Reed when I moved to Jonesborough, Tennessee in 2003.  “Coach,” as they called him, since he had been a coach for more than a generation of young people in the schools of Washington County, Tennessee, was grinning the moment I met him, and there was a sparkle of grace in his eyes.

He came to the parsonage when we moved in, and was part of a group of guys who were trying to get some things done to the house so we could make it a home.  One of the things they were doing was putting in a new wood floor in the den and kitchen.  There were some leftover boards in the garage, and Coach took a few of them home with him.  Said he had something he wanted to do with them.  I told him that was fine.  I was the new guy and I wasn’t going to go against anybody, since I wanted things to go well.

In the conversation, my wife let him know some things had been broken in the move, and one of these things being a metal rooster I had collected at the previous place, he took notice and gladly took it to his “tinkering” place where he promised he’d work on getting it fixed.  I figured I might never see it again, and was willing to part with it, since it was just one among many of my collection (having received them from a group of people in the previous church who had been taking delight in making sure I got them).

I rode around the neighborhood with Coach a while one afternoon.  He wanted to tell me about different things, like the airport on 107 and the site of the old pottery which was near his homeplace.  In the seat between us was a box or two of fried pies.  He offered me one, and I refused it since I didn’t need the calories, but he just kept grinning, and soon we went through a road block where the state workers were repairing a piece of the road.  He hollered at the flag man and reached and handed him some pies, and asked him if he needed water.  I was amazed at the delight he was taking in offering this hospitality.

I came to find that Coach Reed had a ministry of taking old wheel chairs and fixing them up to give to people who needed them.  He had a place where he worked on these things and spent a lot of time there.  But getting them done wasn’t his aim as much as meeting people, telling stories, and grinning.

One day I was walking through the church before service and Coach was sitting beside a Mr Slonaker, and he was sharing his trademark grin.  So I stopped and shook hands with these men and welcomed them to the service.  Coach looked up and said, “Preacher!”  Without missing a beat he continued:  “Slonaker and I are going over to the Army-Navy Surplus Store this week to look for some blankets.”  I thought he must have some sweet ministry he was wanting to do that involved blankets.  I wanted to hear about this so I asked him what for?  That delighted him further, and his grin got bigger, then he stated: “Yeah, it’s so cold in this sanctuary with the air conditioner running we need them to stay warm!”  Still grinning at me, I could only laugh and tell him my trademark statement:  “Coach,” I said, “There’s two things I refuse to learn how to do:  1.  work the sound system, and 2. mess with the thermostat.”  But I never forgot the sheer delight he took in telling me that, dressed in his best shorts and polo shirt.

So as you can see, this special man was involved in a lot of things.  He was one of Jonesborough’s greatest storytellers, although he never took to the stage.  His stories were personal and he delighted to be in anyone’s presence.

One day I was surprised when he came to me and informed me that he was going to do the children’s sermon the next Sunday.  I hardly ever got volunteers for that, so I was relieved and interested in what he might do.  He informed me he was going to tell the story of the “Donkey Cross.”  I had never heard of that and wondered what I was in for.  On the day he was to do this he had his hand behind his back as he came to the front of the church with the kids.  He sat on the designated spot on the altar, and commenced telling the tale of the cross that appears on the back of a certain breed of donkey, and he had a book that had pictures.  The kids were highly interested in his story and he was delighting in telling it.  Then he finished his tale and prayed with the kids, after which he turned to be sure I was looking, and turned back to the congregation to announce:  “A few months ago when the preacher and his wife got here I found out one of his roosters was broken.  Now you probably don’t know that our preacher has a bunch of roosters.  Well, I fixed his broken rooster, and am going to give it back to him today, since he’s the head rooster around this place!”  His grin got bigger and he reached and handed me the rooster, now made whole by his work (or somebody’s he knew who could weld).  The congregation loved this, especially the part about the “head rooster.”

It wasn’t long after this that I found myself at a graveside, trying to say appropriate words about the life of this man who loved people so much.  Before he died he presented me with two picture frames he made from those boards he took from the parsonage.  I have one in my office today, to help me remember the hospitality of one of God’s saints.

Rooster-Art

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The Baptism of Mrs. Maggie

I moved to Russell County, Virginia in 1989.  I was fresh out of seminary and excited to be out of school and assigned to a two-point circuit in the real world.  I was relieved when I found out I was going to be assigned to a place in southwestern Virginia, as I had felt a particular calling to the area while in College.  The hills and mountains felt like home and the green pastures and clear streams fed something deep within my soul.

So I found myself getting to know my church members.  I was pretty meticulous going through the church roll and trying to find people whose membership was listed there but who had not shown up yet.  I found one of those to be an elderly woman named Maggie.  She lived in a house by the side of the main road between Claypool Hill and Lebanon.  Her house was on the side of a hill, and from her picture window in the living room she could watch the traffic go by.  That is, she could watch the traffic if she could see better.  Her eyes were deteriorating, and her vision wasn’t great.  But she enjoyed sitting in the sunlight and waiting to see if anyone was coming to see her.

It was in this context that my little VW drove up her driveway one day.  I had asked some folks in the church about her.  One of her sons had a garden in my back yard, and we had talked about her.  I think he had asked me to go see her.  I got out of the car and went through the front gate of the yard and bounded up the steps to the front porch.

After introductions, Mrs Maggie began talking.  She informed me that no pastor had ever come to see her.  And she told me some interesting stories from her life.  She had raised a house full of young’uns.  Their family had worked on farms around Belfast.  The children were put to labor as soon as they could work, helping with the crops, working hay and tobacco, and rounding up cattle.  As her children grew up they moved to places to seek work away from the farms, as the pay there wasn’t much.

One son had gone up north to work in the auto factories.  Word reached Mrs Maggie that he was sick and she was worried to death about him.  So she made plans to go see about him.  At the time her husband was working on a particular farm where they lived and she went by night to ask the farm owner if they could spare some money to let her go see about her son.  She told me the lady of the house threw a dollar out the window at her.  She took it and bought a train ticket.  With only some change left she arrived in the big city, not really knowing how she was going to find her son.

Her testimony of the kindness of strangers, people of African American heritage (not her words), was moving.  She had found more care and concern in the big city than she felt she had received in the county of her birth.

But her words weren’t bitter.  She held herself with dignity and continued telling her tales of her life to me.  After a while I had to bring the conversation to a close and offered prayer and went on my way.  But I kept coming back to Mrs Maggie’s house.  Her hospitality and need to talk kept drawing me.

One day I learned of her being in the hospital at nearby Richlands.  Her children were known for their deep love for her, and some in the community had noticed that there was a particular way they talked about her that bespoke that love.  “Preacher,” the voice on the phone said, “Mother is at the hospital.”  The way the speaker said “Mother” was noticeable.  They continued:  “And she wanted me to ask you for a special favor.”  I was glad to do whatever I could for Mrs. Maggie.

“Preacher, she’d like to be baptized.  Can you do that?”  My mind went to how to do something like that in the hospital, but I was glad to do it, so I answered in the affirmative and collected some things and headed that way.  I stopped at a store and bought some bread and grape juice too.  I was going to double up on sacramental worship if I could.

I arrived to find Mrs. Maggie accompanied by her daughter, her son-in-law, and a couple of her sons.  I visited with her for a few moments to find out how she was doing.  She didn’t think she was going to make it and wanted to make a profession of faith and be baptized.  I fixed a bowl of water and even put together my chalice with communion supplies.  I read some scripture about the goodness of God.  Then I walked her informally through our baptism ritual, hearing her answer to the examination questions.  I cupped water with my hand and sprinkled it on her head.  She teared up.  I said the words of the ritual:  “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  Her children said, “Amen.”  I asked them to lay a hand on her as we invoked the Holy Spirit to work within her, that she might become a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.  Then we had communion.

What happened that day in the hospital was an act of inclusion.  Many times Mrs. Maggie had told me of ways she had felt excluded, and even unwelcome by some in the community, especially those who had more that she had.  That day she was included in the gracious community of faith, and surrounded by some of her own family who dearly loved her.

Mrs. Maggie lived through that hospital stay and returned home.  I remember being invited to her house for a home-cooked meal not long after that.  She worked for weeks to get that together.  At 91, and mostly blind, she couldn’t do much of it anymore, but her children helped her and she fed the preacher.  This was her way of thanking God for including her in the kingdom.  I knew when I entered her house for this meal, it wasn’t about serving my needs, it was about allowing her to show thanksgiving to God.

She was thrilled the day I came and told her that I was going to get married.  I brought my fiance to come see her and meet her.  Her son was attending my fiance’s church, and so she felt she had a special connection to her.  I spoke up and asked her, since Tammie’s grandparents had died, if she wouldn’t be willing to be Tammie’s honorary grandparent the day of our wedding.  She took that responsibility as seriously as if Tammie was her own.  And she attended our wedding.

God’s grace is an act of inclusion.  There isn’t anyone beyond the scope of God’s love.  Mrs. Maggie illustrated that to me.  And she lived the rest of her days a full recipient of God’s grace.  thumb_COLOURBOX7161097

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Bluefield: A Wedding of Two Communities

This winter I spent some time in the Craft Memorial Library over at Bluefield, West Virginia.  I found there microfilmed copies of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph from the late 1800s to the middle of the 1900s.  Interesting stories.

Of course the first community to be founded was the little town of Graham, on the Virginia side.  It was named after a Philadelphia entrepreneur, a man by the name of Thomas Graham, whose family had been involved in international merchandising before the Civil War, and afterwards Graham was highly interested in developing natural resources in the US and abroad.  He met up with some others who had decided to build a railroad into the Flattop Mountain region to mine coal from the area’s rich seams.  His ability to get the capital from northern investors to make this happen caused the locals to honor him with the naming of the town in 1883.  This lasted for just a little over 40 years.

The city of Bluefield developed just a little to the east, and across the state line.  It’s name comes from natural features.  Some say it reflects the presence of a wildflower called Chicory, which has an azure blue flower.  Others think it has some relation to the Bluestone River and its limestone rock which flows through the area.  The town of Bluefield came to be by 1889.  Newspaper accounts say the land prices in the Virginia town of Graham had skyrocketed once word got out the railroad was coming.  Higginbotham’s Summit, in the West Virginia side had the space for rail yards, and the land was much cheaper there, so the railroad made the switch to the West Virginia land, and developed a strong presence there, drawing businesses and residents.

By the 1920s the two communities were receiving some unprecedented growth.  The coalfields were bringing in the money and the railroad was serving as a hub for passengers, freight, and coal.  The area was booming.

Baptists in the Commonwealth of Virginia wanted to establish a college in the region of southwestern Virginia.  They were courted by business and community leaders from Bluefield and Graham.  This effort was successful and the Bluefield College was established in 1922, a building was built and students welcomed to campus in the fall of 1923.  In December of that year the paper published a column in which a conversation was reported to have been engaged in at a local Graham business during which a debate ensued about changing the name of the Virginia town of Graham to Bluefield, honoring the college they hosted on Virginia land, and bowing to the powerful presence of the much larger community of Bluefield, West Virginia.

The conversation consumed the town and the newspaper for months.  Legislation was offered in the General Assembly allowing for a special town election to decide the question.  A long list of supporters of the name change was published in the Graham Daily News section of the Daily Telegraph, noting many of the leading families of the community were in favor of this change.  The election came and went and Graham was renamed Bluefield.

In July of 1924, about a month after the town election, a mock “Wedding” was staged at the state line, with governors of each state being present, and a couple took the vows of matrimony, representing a marriage of the two communities.  Of course they kept their own governmental oversight, but the spirit of the community became one that day.

The schools kept the name Graham, as did some of the churches and businesses.  A letter was published from a descendant of Thomas Graham, saying the family was in favor of the name change but that they thought the community should work hard to diversify their industrial base so the community would prosper into the future.

The newspaper editor suggested building a monument to Thomas Graham’s influence upon the community.  Nothing was done about this suggestion.  Graham had died in 1891 on a trip to Mexico where he was inspecting some copper mines.  His sons ran the Graham Land and Improvement Company in the town for several years, but neither became permanent residents.

This Friday and Saturday the two Bluefields will celebrate 90 years as two communities with the same name.  Its a good time to celebrate, even though the demise of the coal industry has brought the West Virginia community to a position of only being a shadow of its former self.  The old town of Graham, now Bluefield, Virginia, has kept a steady population all these years.

From MarkerHistory.com

From MarkerHistory.com

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The State of Franklin: Freedom’s Frontier

I was born within the environs of what historians call the “Lost State of Franklin.”  This fleeting governmental boundary was composed of lands lying to the west of present day North Carolina, in the valleys of the great western waters (the Holston, Nolichucky, Watauga, French Broad, Clinch, Powell, and Tennessee Rivers).  The settlements of European-descended Americans had been attempted since the 1740s, with many trading posts established to interact with the Cherokee and other native people, and a lot of activity by “Long Hunters” who collected animal skins for the growing demand in the old country.  After decades of interaction with natives, these early settlers purchased lands and established residency along the very fertile river bottoms and hollows of the area.

It was in the Watauga Settlement in 1772 that early settlers drew up an agreement to live under their own rules and self-government, making themselves one of the first groups to taste independence in the Colonial days.  After the Revolution got started (in the year 1780), these same families, joined by later comers, hearing of the war and fearful of what it was doing to their liberty, joined together at Sycamore Shoals near modern day Elizabethton, Tennessee, and with the Reverend Samuel Doak, a Presbyterian preacher, as their spiritual leader, and armed with flintlock rifles and fighting skills gained by interaction with the natives, marched to King’s Mountain near the North Carolina/South Carolina border, west of Charlotte, and gave the British such a routing that only a few days afterward Lord Cornwallis threw in the towel at Yorktown and a truce was called to the war, giving legitimacy to the effort for Independence of our great nation.

The State of Franklin was soon given birth as a way for these back-country soldiers to continue their effort to govern their own destiny.  From 1784 to 1788 it was in existence, with its first capital at Jonesborough, and subsequent governmental operations at Greeneville.  The major motivating factor for this new state was a sense of disregard coming from the governor and legislature of North Carolina, which first had claimed this region.  A King’s Mountain soldier and settler of the Nolichucky area, John Sevier, quickly rose to leadership and helped shape this new statehood effort.  So far the United States had no rules on the books for how new states could be formed.  Soon the objections of North Carolina were heard in Washington, and the State of Franklin ceased to exist, though love of freedom had been born in the hearts of the westerners.

As a compromise, Congress finally established a “Territory.” The area then became the “Territory South of the Ohio River.”  A provisional government was established at Rocky Mount, near present-day Piney Flats (between Bristol and Johnson City, off US 11-E).  Governor William Blount ruled this territory until Tennessee was carved out as a separate state, with governmental operations at the new settlement of Nashville, in 1796.  The old Franklinite John Sevier became the first Governor of Tennessee.

When people of Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and other areas in the region act stubborn and refuse to cooperate with outsiders, we’re just being true to our nature.  We are Franklinites still, lovers of freedom, and we’re only doing what the scripture says in Galatians 5:  “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (King James Bible).

On this July 4th, let us remember how hard-fought our freedom has been.  Each generation must fight the battle for themselves.  I choose to embody the independence of my mountain forebears.

 

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A Trip to the Smokies

Vacations were not something we enjoyed a lot in my youth.  Getting my Dad to take us all somewhere was a challenge.  But once in a while we got to go.

The first time I ever went to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, I was perhaps six or seven.  The trip only takes a little over 90 minutes from the homeplace now, but in those days it seemed longer.  In fact it seemed like we drove for days.

I was told to look for bears, which I now realize was an attempt to keep me quiet.

There are no bears along Interstate 81.  And I’m pretty sure I was told that even before we got to the interstate.

Daddy liked to smoke, and so we children (me sitting in the middle, flanked by my older, meaner sisters, one on each side), sat in the back and got the full force of second-hand smoke, more than likely leading to all our health disorders today.  Add to that his constant expelling of gastro-intestinal fumes, and we were glad to have windows we could let down a little.

This was in the days before Pigeon Forge became the tourist mecca it is today.  Gatlinburg was the main event, and it wasn’t far from scenic drives through mountain scenery.  I don’t remember a lot about this trip, but I know we stayed in a small motel in Gatlinburg.  I’m not sure I slept any, because conditions were tight, and I think I slept on a foldaway bed.

But I was getting used to the place when our family took a notion to drive over into Cherokee, NC.  The drive was gorgeous, although the traffic was heavy this summer, lots of tourists gawking at the trees, and moving quite slowly on the narrow road that connected the communities.

When we got to Cherokee, I loved it.  It was a quiet little town complete with a roadside Teepee that was manned by a dark-skinned man wearing a large feather headdress.  I just knew he had to be a real, live Indian.  I later found out he was a “tourist trap” as my dad called him.  His western style was not authentic to the Cherokee at all.

A little restaurant sat near a trout stream in Cherokee.  We finally stopped to eat, and my dad chose this spot.  I was starved.  This was in the day when a waitress would bring you a glass of water with the menu.  I devoured it while I tried to read the big menu.  One item was something about Rainbow Trout.  I thought that sounded good, so I ordered it.

When the trout came, I was famished.  The server set a big old white plate in front of me.  Upon this plate was a fish that filled the plate.  It was the biggest fish I had ever seen.  And the first thing I noticed was it was staring back at me.  This fish had EYES.  I had never eaten a fish like this, and I wasn’t sure I could.  It had scales on one side and looked like they had just grabbed it out of the creek and put it on my plate.  I said, to the delight of everyone at my table:  “I wanted a fresh fish, but not THIS fresh!”  Everybody laughed, and I picked at my fish, but couldn’t finish it.  My dad reached over and forked it to his plate and ate almost all of what I had left.  I ate a few french fries and that was that.

The only souvenir I remember purchasing on this trip was a little paper weight made of rocks.

One of the reasons we go away on vacation is to make us cherish home all the more.  I think my favorite part of our trip was coming home.  After a few days looking at the Smokies I was plenty glad to see the old Clinch Mountain of home.  And I had a new appreciation for our frozen fish sticks which I always ate with ketchup.  Home is a good place to come back to.

 

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“Benge! What Are You Doing?”

The Commonwealth of Virginia has almost completely excised all references to the murderous actions of early bands of Indian tribes against settlers (who were probably breaking treaties to settle in what was thought to be Indian lands or hunting grounds).  Once historic markers in many of our southwest counties talked about “Indian Outrages” and “Murderous Savages”.  Those have been removed.

But some still share the stories of the raids, the kidnappings, scalpings, and killings that beset our pioneer families.  Being kin to the Indians as well as the pioneers leaves one more than a little conflicted.

So, I bring you one of the stories.  An Indian (or Native American if you must), by the name of Benge, also known as Bench, and reportedly a “half-breed” (which historians report in a fashion that makes it sound like his genetics were the source of evil), with roots in the Cherokee nation, but who had traveled and taken upon himself the lifestyle of the Shawnee, became a leader in raids that happened in the area we know today as Wise, Lee, and Scott Counties, Virginia.  He is reported to have stolen slaves and resold them, kidnapped children and women, scalped and killed men, and otherwise caused the wreaking of havoc in the lives of pioneers.

In 1794, anger had arisen to a fever pitch in effort to stop these raids and related activities.  A group of pioneers organized and fought against Benge.  They cornered him somewhere in Wise County, and historians differ on the exact location, some say it was near Appalachia, others say it was near Dorchester.  But a gap exists on Powell Mountain above Norton, that has come to be called “Benge’s Gap.”  It is thought this is where the fight broke out.  A gunshot rang out, Benge died, and peace reined again in the hollows and hills.

bengebigstonegap

I just returned from a family reunion where my Uncle Bob told me, with a straight face, that his family grew up beneath the place referred to as Benge’s Rock.  A rock outcropping exists at the top of the hill above this hollow where Grandma Miles lived.  Legend has it that this was Benge’s Rock.

The story goes, as my Uncle detailed it for me, that this is the rock where Benge was hiding when they were shooting at him.  When the fatal shot rang out, Benge fell off the rock and where his body hit the ground, it is thought they buried his body there, beneath the rock.

He said when he was a little boy, his uncles used to tell him that you could go up near Benge’s Rock today and holler:  “Benge!  What are you doing?”  And if you hollered this long enough, you could hear Benge say “Nothing!”

A slow, broad smile would break out on Uncle Bob’s face after he told this.  “They got that on me several times.”  “Of course a dead Indian says nothing.”

Bengesrock

 

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Gone to Conference

“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”–Hebrews 10: 25, (King James Bible)

I am not sure who first thought up Annual Conference, but it has been integral to the organization and culture of Methodists for a couple hundred years now.  While it used to take place in the fall, it was moved some time ago to summer, and has remained there, so that the preacher’s children don’t have to change schools in the middle of the year.

That wouldn’t even be a consideration in the Catholic church.

Every year hundreds of Methodists gather at some assembly place in the regional conferences across the country and around the world.  All clergy who are credentialed through their conference are made to report there, as well as representatives from each local church and lay leaders from each district within the conference, enough to make up an equal representation of lay and clergy.  And I should be using the name United Methodist, but I’m quite a bit old fashioned in that regard.

The first person in my family to attend a session of annual conference was my great, great grandfather, William Perry.  He had come home from the Civil War, a broken and defeated confederate soldier (19th Tennessee Infantry), with a bullet wound in his hat.  He married a lady who had gotten religion in 1857 during a revival that started the church.  After he got back from the war, they began a life together and started raising a family.  Their oldest son who lived (their first child died within the first year of life), became a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and so Granddaddy Perry got actively involved in district and conference meetings, representing his church and priding himself in having contributed to the pastoral work.  His brother, Uncle Cliff, represented the northern Methodist group, and went to their district and conference events.  Uncle Cliff and Granddaddy Perry went to the same church.

Did you see that last sentence?  A southern Methodist, and confederate veteran went to church with a northern Methodist and Union Army veteran.  Side by side.  They sat in the same pew.

Maybe I should back up a little.  See, East Tennessee (which should be its own state, since it differs so much in politics from the rest of Tennessee), was fraught with divided loyalties during the “Great Upheaval.”  Tennesseans aren’t real good at conformity, and although it was popular at the time to support confederate ideas, many Tennesseans sided with the north, especially East Tennesseans.  So in the Perry family, Uncle Cliff went to war with the union.  Grandpa went to war with the confederates.  After the war they both came home (thank God) and when they married up, their wives were cousins to each other.

They lived near each other, and the church in the community was their family church.  It was the only church in the area.  Because there were two Holston Conferences from 1865 to 1939, (one north and one south), this congregation decided to be a “union” church.  That doesn’t mean they supported the union, it means they were “united” as a congregation of two entities, the ME Church and the ME Church, South.  They swapped preachers each week, one week a northern conference preacher would preach, the next week a southern conference preacher would preach.  Joint rolls were kept of the congregation.  Sunday School literature was swapped each year.  And so they lived and worshiped and related to one another as the years went by, and slowly, but surely, the two entities finally merged (along with the Methodist Protestants), and became the Methodist Church.

Since that time, there’s only been one Holston Conference.  And we’ve met in places across the region, from Radford, Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  In the 1960s, and again in the 1970s, we started meeting at Lake Junaluska, in North Carolina.  This is a large resort-like assembly ground owned by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of what is now the United Methodist Church.

Every second week of June we meet for three or four days and sing the songs of faith, listen to sermons and Bible teaching, hear reports from various committees in the annual conference, take communion, memorialize the dead preachers and spouses, enact any business that needs to be acted upon, and hear where the bishop is going to send the preachers this year.

It’s a full few days.  And it’s like a big family reunion as we see one another and relive old times, and welcome new preachers (with ordination and licensing services), and much good will is present.

I first attended Annual Conference the summer after my dad took his life.  My preacher that year seemed interested in pointing me towards the ministry.  It must have worked.  I was impressed with the large number of people present and the great preaching.  And I loved to hear Bishop Finger speak in his eloquent way with his lingering “s” at the end of his wordsssssssssss.

Every year when the Day lilies start blooming, you know its time to go to Conference.  John Wesley called these meetings a “means of grace.”  I think he was on to something.daylilies

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The Model City

I grew up next to Kingsport, Tennessee.  Kingsport has had several lives, the most recent being a period of industrialization, growth, expansion, and relative decline.  This period was much touted at the beginning as the town became known through the moniker “The Model City.”

This period of development was marked with a group of visionary leaders who worked in tandem with industrial interests to bring several compatible industries to the river banks of the Holston River, and decided they should work with a city planner to draw up plans for a city that could grow to 100,000 residents.  They hired John Nolan, who had planned several other communities across the nation, and Nolan’s plan for Kingsport was laid out, and the community grew.  Thus, “The Model City” was born.

A few days ago one of Kingsport’s post-modern leaders opined that “if you work in Kingsport, you should live in Kingsport.”  This is probably not the first time some frustrated leader has said as much, but it is the opposite of the concept that gave the city success.

Kingsport grew up in an era when most of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia in the Holston Valley at least, was agrarian.  Small farms dotted the hilly land, and most residents were providing well for themselves with hard work, growing food and managing small herds of cattle, sheep, and horses.  As the big town began to take shape, some of the sons and daughters of farm families found that the lure of cash was too strong, and they left the farm to go work in the city.  The success of Kingsport as a community came from the willingness of these workers to go work a shift at the Eastman, Meade, or Press, and go back home to their garden spots and milk cows at night.

Today’s problem is different because people’s lives have changed.  Much of the farm habits of previous generations have been abandoned for the commodity-driven consumerist and materialist culture that is modern America.  People depend now on food being brought in from far away, some from third-world and developing nations, and worked by migrant farmers, while they shop for it in the comfort of air-conditioned grocery aisles in big-box stores, and then drive home to their two and three car garages and 2,500-3,500 square feet homes.  The habits of the present generation will not be sustained as fuel resources run out, but we’re told we won’t have to worry about that for a little while longer.  Thus, people in Johnson City now work in Kingsport, and people in Kingsport work in Johnson City, or Bristol, or even Greeneville, or the coal fields of Wise County, or elsewhere around the region where they can make the money they need to sustain their lifestyles.

While the city leader’s statement about living and working in the same community makes sense, it isn’t what folks are going to do.  They invest in homes in the community where they choose to live.  They seek work related to the financial needs they have to sustain their lifestyles, and some may drive over an hour away for work.  Gone are the days when a community like Kingsport can be its own closed economy.

The history of the success of the Tri-Cities region has always depended upon regional cooperation.  We are at our best when we work together.  It doesn’t happen often, because folks who lead one community do not usually get votes from people who live somewhere else.  The political process is what is broken.  But no one is going to invest in living somewhere if they don’t have a desire to live there.

While there are many signs of new life in the Model City, it has definitely experienced decline as a community.  Housing has deteriorated throughout the area, and landlords haven’t been very helpful in changing that.  Expansion of the city’s treasury through annexation has not proven to be the right solution either.  While many of the city’s past workers have moved just beyond the borders of the city, in places like Colonial Heights and Church Hill, there is a new trend of people moving all the way to other cities like Johnson City.  This has left a perception that all that remains is a population of entitlement-dependent folks who cannot pay for the city’s very expensive programs and amenities.

The solution isn’t to gripe about how folks choose to live.  Instead, the city should work to redevelop decaying neighborhoods, as they did recently in the Eastman Road redevelopments from Stone Drive to Fort Henry Drive.  Encouraging redevelopment in older neighborhoods will bring new life to the Model City.  Younger people, folks who haven’t reached the top of their careers yet, will move back if some of these areas are renewed, not only in business development, but in rehabbing housing.

Then another important area of attention the city needs to come to terms with is the whole area of drug abuse.  Many folks have missed the economic life of the city and have fallen into patterns of drug use and related criminal problems and deterioration of family life.  The city needs to give some attention to this and develop effective programs aimed at helping people find ways to break the cycle of addiction and related poverty.  If this isn’t addressed, it doesn’t matter what happens with jobs, folks won’t even drive in there due to the crime that will continue to grow.

The best thing the city has done in the past forty years is develop the downtown higher education center, where area colleges have come to teach classes.  Someone suggested the city should give two years of education to any city resident who graduates high school.  I laud that idea, but it should be combined with some civic duty, since, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”  Students in the downtown center should have to return to the city some form of community service that addresses the needs of the community.  Many new ideas flow from the brains of the young.  Let them loose to form some new ideas and generate some new energy into the life of the Model City.

I was born in Kingsport, but lived in the area between that town and Weber City, Virginia. As was typical of folks around the area, my family shopped, used doctors, dentists, and other professionals, and my dad worked in the city.  We lived outside the limits because that is where my family’s farm was.  We had been there since 1807, in fact.  So it was hard to leave it.  But, Kingsport is still important to me, and I hope the city will find ways to address the problems while continuing to aim high with cultural, educational, and developmental projects.  In so doing, and with the hard work of redeveloping this great city, it can once again earn the title “Model City.”

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“Nuptials”

My parents married on May 17 at the pretty little Morrison Chapel in the iconic year of 1957.

In those days the newspaper carried long, flowery narratives of these events, describing the bridesmaids’ dresses and the bride’s dress, and the music, and the flowers, etc.  Marrying was a big event in those days and it was very public and well-attended.

But there was a time when marrying was a little different in these hills.

My grandparents, who were married on Dec 10, 1930, chose to be married at home.  My Mammaw had a family ceremony in the living room of the old house where she was born.  Pappaw used to tell about it, saying that during the prayer the preacher prayed, he was looking for an open window in the room, hoping he could jump out and run away.  But, the windows must have been closed because they were happily married for around 66 years, until he died.

Mammaw & Pappaw in their "courtin'" days

Mammaw & Pappaw in their “courtin'” days

He told me once that a grandparent of his, Noah B Galloway, rode on horseback to a log house that stood where Kingsport Laundry used to be on Sullivan Street, in the old “Lovedale” community, and “stole” his bride out of a window of the house, and rode off and got married.  I always wondered what it would have been like to have taken a horse ride like that!

My dad’s parents “ran off” to Kentucky to get married.  Mammaw Scott never talked much about her wedding.  It must have been something.  But apparently that was the way folks married in her day, you went across the mountain from Wise and got married in Letcher County, or if you were in Letcher County, you popped across the mountain and got married in Wise.  When I was in Lee County, Virginia, I was told about a preacher who spent all day most every day of the week at the court house waiting for couples to show up that he could “hitch.”

I was serving the Belfast-Midway circuit of the United Methodist Church when I found my bride, Tammie, who was a member of a little Freewill Baptist Church in Bandy, Virginia.  Upon the announcement of our intention to marry, the churches got really excited.  I was told they were going to practice the “chivary.”  This is an ancient Appalachian response to marrying where the family and friends come to the house sometime after the newly married couple are “official” and they take pots and pans and beat them to make noise, and probably hoot and holler a lot, and then they “capture” the bride and carry her around in a big ole bushel barrel, and “capture” the groom and he gets ridden on a rail.  They had me pretty convinced this was going to happen, but alas, we escaped the “chivary.”

When I first came to Belfast to live, the parsonage was a two-story white farmhouse-style home built on a plot of land directly across the road from the church.  It was built about 1912, by Henry C. Stuart, as part of a little settlement near the first schoolhouse in the community.  The house had its signs of age, but it made a decent place to hang your hat at night, and at least it had a good front porch with a porch swing.

I had been living there a while when I got a knock on the door.  I answered the door to find a man, pacing and nervous.  I was afraid something was really wrong.  He stuttered, “Ppppreacher?”  I answered, “I’m the preacher, yes.”  “Ccccan you-you-you, uh, uh, mmmmarry us?”  I was a little concerned at his nervous state, but I smiled and welcomed him in for a minute.  He explained that his fiance and he needed to get married.  They were both strangers.  They had the appropriate legal documents.  I walked them across the road to the church and tried to settle him down while I filled out the license.  I asked them about their relationship, how they planned to live, and make a living.  He answered satisfactorily to all my questions.  I stopped him from talking and looked directly at the young lady, and asked her was this her desire, and she gave an appropriate and lovey-dovey answer, so I knew there was a pretty good chance this was going to happen with or without my signature.  So we had a wedding right there in my little office.  They repeated the words I gave them, and after saying all the ritual, I pronounced them married.

Then the young man, who was wearing blue-jeans and a pullover shirt, reached into the pockets of his jeans and began pulling out dollar bills, one-by-one, and wadded.  As he gave them to me, I straightened each one out and smoothed them back out, and kept receiving them from him until there was perhaps 16 or 17 of them.  I was so taken with this young couple and their pitiful-looking state, and this act of “paying the preacher” just seemed so difficult.  I couldn’t keep it, so after he gave me the last dollar he wanted to give, and after I said something about “how much is she worth?” and we laughed a little, nervously, I handed the dollars back in a bunch and said, “I want to make an investment in this marriage.  You take your bride out to eat.”  He seemed at once surprised and pleased.  They left and I took the license down to Lebanon to the court house for filing.

When I moved to North Tazewell, Va., I found that there was a huge tradition there of people coming down out of West Virginia to get married.  I asked questions about this because I was getting slammed with couples wanting to get married.  The pastor at the Main Street Church got most of the requests, but on his day off, which was Thursday, I would almost always have somebody wanting to get hitched.  The couples explained to me that there was a waiting period in the state of West Virginia, and in Tazewell County, Virginia, you could come get a license, find a preacher (usually they came to Methodists because we were full-time, so we were home), and get back home before supper.  I usually performed about sixty or seventy a year like this.  The pastor at Main Street said he did about 300.

Of all these couples, I managed to talk one of them to come to the church.  They made a good family and they took my advice to raise their children in the church.  They already had some kids from past marriages.

I found that a small percentage of these couples were getting married multiple times.  When I would see on the license that this was the sixth or seventh marriage, my lecture would get more serious.  Then one day one of them informed me that they were getting married to one another all those times.  I said, “What?”  He told me, “We found out that we could get more money from welfare if she wasn’t married, so we divorced.  Then we got to feeling bad about it and wanted to get married again.  When we needed more money she had to divorce me again.”  Do you think I told them a few things about the meaning of the vows and “til death do us part?”  You bet I did.

About the time I left North Tazewell, West Virginia took out the waiting period and this habit of traveling to Virginia has now dried pretty well up.  In the mean while, I’ve made a decision to only marry people I know.  And I’ve decided that marriage counseling has some pretty good effects on helping couples make this step with open eyes and good intentions.

 

 

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Cars & Trucks

I still own my very first truck.

I can’t drive it.  Never did.  It is a little match-box-sized toy truck that looked a lot like my Pappaw’s old green Chevy which he drove everywhere about the time I was born.  This little toy had been passed down several times before it came to me.  It has a flat tire.  One of the four tires got melted on something, so it has a tendency to make a strong “Thump” when you try to roll it.

photo (7)

There was a day when this little truck was just one part of a vast domain of match-box vehicles that covered the living room floor when I was busy playing.  I had a big box of them.  Some were sporty, some more traditional-looking, and some were just bits and pieces of their former selves, survivors of the rough play of visiting cousins who never put them back like they found them.

I remember days when I could set up a whole highway system in the floor of our house.  Orange tracks complete with “loop-the-loops” were the focus of my childhood imagination, from the living room chair to the dining room door.  When the weather got warm enough we could be outside with just a pair of shorts on, I’d take my cars and go dig in the dirt in the sunshine, all the while studying the movement of big trucks and bulldozers across the road from the house.

The Scott side of the family were tinkerers with mechanical things.  My Dad’s father was a mechanic much of his working life.  He loved to take things apart and put them back together.  I have fond memories of my daddy working out in the garage, his head stuck under the hood of some vehicle, changing his own oil, tinkering, and “adjusting” things.

Daddy had a large set of tools, most of them Craftsman, from Sears, where he worked.  Ratchets, and wrenches, and screwdrivers and just about everything you needed to keep things in working order.  He kept our oldsmobile and his big yellow dodge which he had bought from the State Highway Department, in good working order.

My little truck still holds a place of honor on one of my shelves.  It is a reminder of simpler days.  matchbox

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Of May-apples and Sweet-heart Leaf

As the hills start to green up around the old home place, we’d often walk the pasture fence.  It wasn’t a lot of fun, as you had to go through briar patches and rocky places, but the job had to be done because we were a-fixing to turn the cows back from the meadow to the pasture.  We had to get them off the meadow so the hay could grow.

We’d stretch barbed-wire and nail steeples over it into locust fence posts.  Some of these posts were ancient.  Sometimes it was hard to find a place to drive the steeples.   If we could get the tractor and wagon near the fence, we would take some new posts and a coil of new wire with us and some post-hole diggers and a tamping pole, and put in brand-new posts.  I’d get off the school bus and find the tractor and go to work.  We’d always pull nettle clumps and mullein plants to keep them from taking over the pasture.  Sometimes we’d work a little bit on the pasture road too.

But there was a place on the back river-bluff, the westernmost part of the pasture, furthest from the house.  This place was among tall trees, poplars and white and red oaks, and a few hemlocks.  The ground beneath these trees was covered in rich soil.  Often the herd would use this area as a place to lounge during sunny days, using the shade as their cover and air-conditioner.  We came across them often on our pasture walks, finding them lounging around, chewing their cud.

Among the trees in May there would be a plant that grew, which I was told was called a “May-apple.”  This little plant comes up early in Spring, near the end of the frost time, around the 10th of May.  They’d bear a little white flower under a large roof-like leaf, and later a fruit would form on their stems.  They grew about 15 to twenty inches high, and then went away before too long.

Another plant that grew up on the bluff was one that Pappaw called “Sweet-heart leaf.”  This plant had the sweetest smell you ever smelled.  It reminded me of the aroma of Juicy Fruit gum, a little, though it was somewhat different.  It only grew in the spring, then it disappeared.  It’s dark, green and white speckled leaves were a prize souvenir on our walks, and they were heart-shaped, hence the name.  I don’t have a clue what this plant is supposed to be called, but that’s what we called it.  By the time we would get back to the house, it would have lost its aroma due to over-wallowing it in my hand and pockets.

The beautiful thing about these plants are that they became signs that spring was pretty much here, and soon would follow summer.  Then we’d spend some time down at the creek when it was time to salt the cattle.  But that’s another story.

 

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“Getting Our Ears Lowered”

Usually on Saturday, but sometimes on other days, especially in the Summer, we would load up in the vehicle (usually that yellow-ish green ’57 Chevy, but sometimes in the old green truck), and drive over to Weber City to “get our ears lowered.” I was ever the eager traveler, and went without even asking where we were headed (if you’ll pardon the unintended pun).

I even think I remember my very first trip.  It was to “Terry’s Barber Shop” in the corner of a building that has become part of Smith & Rhoten Furniture now.  It was always a place of conversation.  The barbers would remain quiet unless their customers were too quiet, then they would ask a question to get them started.  Each customer was the center of the barber’s attention while they were on that big, ole chair, and once they were through, they’d smack it a few times with a broom, shake the hair out of the cloth they put over their lap, and take a broom to sweep up a little hair from the floor.  Then they’d say “Next,” and do it all over again.

As a young’un, I just played in the waiting chairs, reading old magazines, or, really just looking at the pictures, while the grown-ups talked.  I’d get engrossed in whatever I was doing, and usually when Pappaw got done with his hair cut, the barber would hand me a little sucker with a stick that made a loop back into the sucker.  I loved those things.

But one day when I was expecting a sucker I was asked, “You ready to get your ears lowered?”  I wasn’t sure what was meant by that.  I am sure I thought, “I didn’t know you could put your ears lower.”  But, being a little dab adventurous, and trusting fully my Pappaw, I walked up to the chair, where the barber lifted me up to a board that sat on the arms of the big, ole chair.  I got that big, old piece of cloth tied around my neck, and some tissue paper around the back of my neck, and he turned on those clippers.

I think I gave way to the emotions of a three or four year old.  I cried.  I didn’t like the sound of the clippers coming close to me.  Didn’t know what it was going to do.  After all, didn’t they say something about lowering my ears?  The barber used some scissors and clipped a little here and there, and tried talking cheerfully to me.  I sat there a while getting used to that, and him, and he tried those clippers again.  This time, being coached by Pappaw to be a big man, I braved my way through it and got my whole head trimmed.

Then, once the brush came out, and my loose hairs were all brushed away, the neck cloth came undone, the tissue was taken away, and somebody helped me down out of that chair.  Then I got my sucker and forgot all about crying.

After that, I never offered to cry again, and went with regularity whenever Pappaw asked if I wanted to get my ears lowered.  Mr. Terry, a Mr. Lawson, and a Gillenwaters man were part of that shop.  Later the Gillenwater fellow talked his brother into opening a shop across from the old Cas Walker’s.  Mr. Lawson was a part time barber there.  We frequented this shop for several years.  I remember when they put up a painting of the rapture.  It was a full color oil on canvas of people flying up from houses, fields, cars, and even out of air planes, to the open arms of Jesus in the heavens.  I studied that painting for years.  I always wondered why Jesus was never pictured with a good hair cut.  Believe me, that was the topic of discussion more than once in the 1970s.

I have lived in several places over the years, and have found that discovering the barber shop is one of my favorite things.  They’re almost all alike.  Different personalities, but they all serve as places where ideas are exchanged, news is digested, and hair gets shortened.  A good barber has to learn how you like your hair.  They ask and try to remember each time you come back.  When it begins to feel like home, and I am reminded of those trips when I was a small boy, I know I’m in the right place.  And my ears do LOOK lower!

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Medicine in Appalachia

There’s something about the way we mountain people view health.  I think we value our health, but we have odd feelings about medicine.

For instance, one of the most widely practiced ways of getting people well in these hills and hollows is to use plants and herbs.  Some of the cures came from Indian (the Native American kind) ways.  It’s been suggested that many of our people intermarried with and otherwise learned from the Native population when they moved into the mountains.  After all, these people had been here for centuries, and they knew what worked.  So there were many Indian practices that were adopted by the first wave of settlers, especially the Long Hunters and their families.

One such practice was making “bitters,” a kind of herbal tea made from numerous herbs found in the Spring of the year, and combined into a drink that was designed to, let’s just say, give your body a “Spring cleaning.”  I purchased a bag of bitters at Mt. Rogers, Virginia during the “Whitetop Mountain Maple Sugar Festival” one year.  I took it home and cooked it, and drank it, and, let’s just say, it worked.  It had a list of what was in it, but I don’t even remember any of it.  I just know it tasted like drinking hay bales.

Doing some genealogy, I discovered that my great-great Granddad Scott was a sort of self-proclaimed doctor.  He had a doctor’s bag and used to go around “treating” people with medicine in his vials.  His wife, my great-great Grandmother, was a mid-wife, and helped deliver a host of young-uns.  This was in the days before many physicians that were well-trained and professional had moved into the area.  Granddad’s other job was postmaster for a little community called “Kimbo” in Wise County, Virginia.  As far as any of us know, he was self-educated.

In our hills, in the county of Lee County, in the southwest corner of Virginia, a Methodist Preacher was living in a little house near the Natural Bridge, west of Jonesville, when his wife gave birth to a little boy.  The little boy was interested in his dad’s later job as traveling physician.  This little boy grew up into manhood and studied medicine, and as he did he developed a new way of doing medicine called “osteopathy.”  Andrew Taylor Still is known today as the “Father of Osteopathic Medicine.”  He had moved on to Missouri before he fully developed this method, but his origins are right here in the mountains.

When I began in ministry in a two-point circuit along the border of Russell and Tazewell Counties in Southwest Virginia, I found that medicine was still something people believed they needed, but they didn’t fully trust doctors.  One family in particular in the church had the habit of taking each other’s medicine.  I think one would get medicine, decide they didn’t want it and offer it to other members of the family who thought it might help with some ailment.  After all, it was supposed to be good for SOMETHING, so why not try it.

One member of that family was pretty messed up from different medicine she had taken over the years.  She was checked into the little hospital at Richlands for a time of coming off some of her meds when the pastor who served immediately before I got there was on call.  He went by to see her, and reported she was lying still on the bed.  She motioned for him to come closer.  He got a little closer, she motioned to come closer, he moved closer.  She motioned again, he came closer.  She hadn’t said a word.  He got right over her bed, and then, he reported to me, she reached up with both arms and grabbed a-hold of him, and held on with a strength he did not expect her to have.  He said he had to wiggle hard to get out of her grasp.  He was convinced, as was I when I got to know her, that she didn’t know what she was doing.  The medicine had caused it.

The area was served (and still is in large part) by doctors from foreign nations who had come over here to get medical training, and decided to stay.  Appalachians will give you a chance, so they usually do, but they don’t like being unable to understand what the doctor is saying, and the broken English is a huge problem in communicating, so most of them just sit quietly, expecting the doctor to know what’s wrong without them saying much.  “I don’t understand anything the Dr. says!” is an oft-heard statement.

I was sitting in a waiting room at the Washington Square clinic on the west side of Richlands when I overheard this conversation:

“Well, how are you doing?”

“I’m all right, just having a few little problems, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah, honey, I know what you mean.”

“I’ve always said, ‘Don’t ever start going to the Doctor.’  You ever start you’ll never stop!”

In recent years, the Appalachian area has become beset with a scourge of pain-killer abuse.  High-powered pain pills like oxycontin and others, have been abused with regularity.  Counties like Lee County, have been in the news with the highest rate of death from these drugs.  Medicine doesn’t always help us.  Physicians have been guilty of over-prescribing medicine, and pushing pills.  The problem is nowhere near over.

A philosophical fatalism pervades the thinking of people in this region.  There’s nothing they feel they can do to improve their lives so they live with poor health, drug abuse, and poor nutrition.  And the high cost of medicine and medical care is one piece of that thinking.  People feel there’s no just no use.  You either have health or you don’t.  And if you do, you probably won’t have it long.

I pray one day the human spirit will rise again in this population.  As some of our population get trained in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and other areas, and if they’ll practice among the communities in this region, the mindsets could change, and health could improve.

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Check out “Hollow” from Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Great work on an Appalachian community

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A Summer at Temperance Hall

The last summer I attended seminary, I was placed by the field education office to serve as a student associate with a pastor on the “Rocky Mount Parish.”  Said parish no longer exists as such, but it was a circuit of three United Methodist Churches in the environs surrounding Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  They were Marvin’s Chapel, McKendree, and Temperance Hall.

I stayed that summer in the community around Temperance Hall, near Elm City.  I was blessed to reside with a family of sweet people who were filled with joy and very helpful.  The lady of the house made a strawberry cake that I still wish I could taste, the memory was indelibly marked on my taste buds.  And the man of the house made home-made North Carolina style barbeque that was out of this world.  I can still hear him comment on it:  “MMMMM, it’s good!”

There was a man in that church named Jack Proctor, who sat near the pulpit in the little choir loft.  This man was a Christian through and through, and I could just get a glimpse of him while preaching and be encouraged to keep going.  He was a blessing and a preaching scotch all at once.  He heard me say I was interested in learning to play my mandolin which I had purchased just before going there.  He invited me to his house and we made a regular time of plucking on mandolins, him sharing chords with me and technique, and lots of stories about the old songs and mandolin players of days gone by.  I was in hog heaven.

We discussed subtle differences in the music of Bill Monroe, the late great Bluegrass pioneer, and Dr. Ralph Stanley, the old time banjo picker and Old Regular Baptist intoner of ancient sacred tunes.  We discussed the Carter family from my own home county, and several others.  I learned to pick and pluck and strum and trill.  I developed hard callouses on my fingers, and I learned how to restring the e-strings which my mandolin loved to break.

Sometimes we talked church.  I learned such wisdom from this man.  He was a deeply dedicated Christian.  His central focus was the way the Bible helps us learn about the one in whom we have put our trust.  He had a strong holiness strain to his personal theology, and lived a Rule of Life that was based on that theological outlook.  He didn’t like a lot of fuss and fancy, just the straight Word of God, and the songs of Zion.  I only had the summer to get to know him, but we became fast friends and brothers in the Lord.  YTBann67

The Temperance Movement began in the early half of the 19th century in the British Isles and was transported to the United States and other places by mid-century.  It was this movement, which later morphed into the Prohibition movement, that led to the 18th amendment to the US Constitution, banning the production and sale of spirituous liquors.  This law didn’t last long as economic and criminal forces turned the tide.  By the 1980s when I was in the Rocky Mount Parish, Temperance Hall was just a place name.   The actual building was long gone.

In the mountains of Southwest Virginia, there had been a preacher named Robert Sheffey, about whom I’ve blogged at this site.  He was known as a man of prayer, and one of the focal points he always prayed about was mountaineers’ moonshine stills.  He often prayed that the Lord would remove the still and let a church be built on the site.  Many churches claim that as their own origin.  It would be interesting to do a study on which ones claimed that distinction.  But it was a major focus of the times in the late 1800s, and as coal communities were formed and railroads brought in new influences even as they trucked out the coal, saloons and other “evils” came in.  Sheffey’s praying and preaching and personal influence soon gained the upper hand and these things were driven out for a few decades.

I ended my summer in Temperance Hall with a strong sermon from a text in Ephesians that talks about how we should treat one another.  The Temperance Hall congregation received it as a Word from the Lord.  The other churches, not so much.  Perhaps the legacy of the Temperance Movement is a respect for the theology of holiness and the idea that God would transform us if we would but cooperate.  I will always hold that little church in my heart.  Good folks with good understanding.

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A Sojourn Among Pine Trees: My Time at Duke

Nine generations of the family lived in the lap of mountains.  Like doting grandparents they watched over us, protected us from whatever was beyond and taught us lessons in silence. The sounds of our stories and songs echoed from the hollows and reverberated from the rocks and rills.  We were at home there.

On a certain August day in 1986 I loaded up my little Mazda GLC hatchback (fire engine red) and my grandparents loaded up their vehicle and we drove in tandem all the way from the home of my people to the gothic wilderness that was Duke University.  This expansive and highly ornate campus would be the focus of the next three years of my life. The tall, straight pines that surrounded the campus hid the lack of mountains.  But when you got away from the pines, the sky was so big it was hard to swallow.  The mountains that once held it at a safe distance were gone.  It felt strange and foreign.duke

The city of Durham, North Carolina was going through a transition from a tobacco town to a new economy built on research, medicine, and technology.  But in the afternoons the cigarette plants downtown would emit an aroma of processed tobacco that hung over the campus.  It was a welcome smell for me as it reminded me of home.  The tobacco field was the source of revenue for our farm, providing tax money to keep the property and paying bills and buying needed things so the operation could continue.  As a Divinity School student I was set up to receive money from the Duke Endowment, funded by the Duke family’s cigarette industry.  I had been raised on a tobacco farm and so it seemed just that I should receive a benefit from the hundreds of pounds of tobacco we had sold to companies like theirs over the years.  I contemplated those things when I stood in the majestic environs of Duke Chapel, a gothic structure on the center of the campus, erected according to the Duke family’s instructions, to be central focus of West Campus, its towering presence creating the point around which the cruciform campus was constructed.

In that chapel there was a smaller side chapel where the Duke family members were interred in large marble tombs.  Their likenesses were carved in the marble that lay atop the graves.  I couldn’t help but think about the end result of all the cigarettes they had made and made money from.  “It is appointed once for a man to die,” the scripture prodded my brain, “and afterwards the judgment.”

In the woods between the chapel and the student center I would trampse across a worn out dirt path that allowed me to cut straight from my parking spot to the Div School.  I noticed a fellow there almost every day walking on a path that intersected mine, and he was very tall.  He spoke every day.  I was watching the Blue Devils play basketball before I noticed that the tall stranger who met me every day on the way to class was Alaa Abdelnaby.  This Egyptian player went on to play in the NBA for a few years.  I wondered how homesick he was as he traversed the dirt path to class.  I found that path the most comfortable place on campus because it was real.

I took a class that first semester after I arrived which proved to me I was getting “too big for my raisin’.”  I enrolled in Moody Smith’s Greek Exegesis of the Gospel of John.  I had seemed to develop a knack for Greek at Emory & Henry, so I thought I could breeze through this thing.  The first day in class it became obvious I had made a miscalculation.  We were a mixed crew.  Most of the students were Ph. D. candidates.  One fellow was a freshman from the university’s Trinity College.  I was the only Master of Divinity student.  We were expected to translate on sight whatever verse Dr Smith asked us to translate.  His vocabulary was the best I had ever sat under.  It was like listening to the Oxford English Dictionary as he spoke, using intentional words and phrases to describe the meaning of the Greek New Testament.  His study of the gospel of John was extensive as well.  It was not unlike opening a commentary and hearing it read itself.  Somehow, in spite of my feeling like a minnow out of the creek, I finished that class.  I didn’t try another like it.

By my senior year in the M. Div. program, I had become so homesick I purchased a mandolin and listened intently to Doyle Lawson cassette tapes, and learned to pluck a little on that thing.  I got with some other students who had Appalachian backgrounds and we put together an impromptu quartet.  One played the guitar and the other two sang.  We signed up for the day before Ash Wednesday to sing in chapel.  We entered the place, excited about our chosen song, an old southern gospel, shaped-note, singing convention piece called “A Beautiful Life.”  We realized we might have made a mistake when we found out the preacher for the day was Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, the British Methodist theologian whose primary contribution to the literature of theology was a work called Doxology which focused on knowing God through the regimented practices of the highest of high church worship.  Boy, was he going to be surprised.  We got up in front of the alb-robed divine, and adjusted our instruments, looked really hard at each other, and began plucking our strings.  Immediately the temperature of the place warmed up.  I had learned a few runs and my buddy on the guitar had a great skill on that instrument.  We introduced the song musically and then began singing.

Each day I’ll do a golden deed,
By helping those who are in need,
My life on earth is but a span,
And so I’ll do the best I can,
The best I can.

Refrain

Life’s evening sun is sinking low,
A few more days and I must go
To meet the deeds that I have done,
Where there will be no setting sun.

To be a child of God each day,
My light must shine along the way;
I’ll sing His praise while ages roll
And strive to help some troubled soul,
Some troubled soul.

Refrain

The only life that will endure,
Is one that’s kind and good and pure;
And so for God I’ll take my stand,
Each day I’ll lend a helping hand,
A helping hand.

Refrain

I’ll help someone in time of need,
And journey on with rapid speed;
I’ll help the sick and poor and weak,
And words of kindness to them speak,
Kind words I’ll speak.

Refrain

While going down life’s weary road,
I’ll try to lift some traveler’s load;
I’ll try to turn the night to day,
Make flowers bloom along the way,
The lonely way.

Refrain

William Golden’s song was ringing through the Divinity School chapel.  The pipe organ was silent that moment but the strings of our instruments were sounding forth.  Perhaps the fact that it was something really different or the fact it was almost mid terms, I’m not sure, but the student body were getting into it, even clapping along.  I glanced over at my worship professor, a woman who ended up in northern Illinois somewhere.  She looked extremely uncomfortable.  I thought, “All right, sister, just hang on it’ll be over in a minute.”  I was amazed by her self restraint when she had the opportunity to say something later in our refreshment time, but refrained.  We had touched home that hour and that was all that mattered.

Missing the mountains, I would sometimes drive north of Durham, go through the little towns of Oxford and Roxboro and find my way up across the Virginia state line until I crossed Highway 58 around South Boston.  Just seeing the landscape of Virginia encouraged me.  I’d go to the Hardees in South Boston, buy a Richmond Times-Dispatch (whose editor Alf Goodykoontz had attended Emory & Henry many years before), and drive back to the big city wilderness.

I prayed that I wouldn’t die in that flat, foreign place, devoid of mountains.  I listened to bluegrass and dreamed of home.  Soon I would be returning.  But that’s another post.

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“Here, I Raise Mine Ebenezer”: Sojourning Among the Saints in Glade Spring, VA

I was at Emory & Henry College for most of the first term before a job notice caught my attention.  It was asking for someone to serve as a music leader and accompanist in a little Presbyterian Church in Glade Spring, Virginia.  Being without a vehicle, I talked a buddy of mine into co-applying.  I would play the instruments and he could direct the choir.  We’d ride together in his truck, the “Stump-Jumper.”  We proposed this to the church’s selection committee and they thought about it and agreed.  Soon we found ourselves driving to Glade Spring every Sunday and Wednesday to lead this little church’s music program.

Grace Presbyterian Church, Glade Spring, Virginia

Grace Presbyterian Church, Glade Spring, Virginia

The major benefactor in the church who was more or less guaranteeing our salaries ($30 a week each), was a physician who was trying to build this church up.  So he invited a lady who had two granddaughters into the choir.  The fact that she and her grandchildren were African-American did not phase him, but the choir members initially had some concerns about that, saying things like “they have their own church,” and “we like things as they were.”  With some insistence on our parts that they should be a little more generous, they accepted this lady and her grandchildren and we had a strong alto section.

As we got to know this lady, we were invited to singings that the black community in Glade Spring were sponsoring.  Several churches were involved, sometimes tiny congregations, but they worked together with utmost ease.  Plum Creek Baptist, Mt. Calvary United Holy Church, a church or two from Marion and Chilhowie, and another baptist church in Glade.  But the church that interested me most was Ebenezer.  It was located on the hill right behind Grace Presbyterian, where we were working, and was the home church of the three new members of our choir.

Singings in these churches often gave each group an opportunity to sing an “A” and “B” selection (two songs), and more than often, the members of the different churches helped each other out, and sang in lots of the groups.  We were always included, and I’d play for my buddy Scott to sing, or we’d bring our little choir over once in a while.  Maybe a preacher or two would get up and bring “greetings” or even preach.  I remember Brother Jasper Burrell, E. H. Cole, Rev. Timmons, and others.  Sometimes people who had gone off to other places would return to praise the Lord among the people of Glade.

Ebenezer had a history like many churches of its kind in the area.  After Emmancipation churches segregated.   The freedom offered to former slaves gave them freedom to form their own congregations, and denominations were created, and missionary societies helped them form churches all over the south.  So in the 1870s many congregations were formed, affiliated with either all-black denominations or the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the “northern” branch of Methodism at that time.  These congregations had feeble strength in terms of capital, but managed to build adequate structures for worship.

Ebenezer’s building was a simple wooden structure, heated at one time with wood stoves, and lined with bead board on the interior walls.  It had two entrance doors, as many churches of that era had, ostensibly so females could go in one and males in the other, though it is unclear if they were used in this manner.  A large, free-standing pulpit was set on a little low platform in the center of the front of the church, and a large upright piano with an old antique stool was on one side, a couple very simple pews lined the back of the platform, and a little rail gave a place to support your upper body when kneeling in prayer.

Otherwise the church’s hand-made pews filled the rest of the house.  Electric lights were added at some point and the windows were built with translucent glass, I’m thinking it was a light shade of purple, although my memory is failing me a bit.

But, O, what sound would rise when the people gathered and started singing.  Those plainly dressed walls and bare wood floors were perfect to grant the acoustics to live singing.  Full-throated voices, and hand-clapping, sometimes rhythmic foot-stomping, would rock that house.

In my student days, Ebenezer had about 8 members on roll.  It was affiliated with a little African American church in Abingdon, Virginia, sharing a pastor with them, and helping each other in special services.

Ebenezer Church in Glade Spring, Virginia

Ebenezer Church in Glade Spring, Virginia

On the Sunday closest to April 11, 1984, I preached my very first sermon in the little Ebenezer Church.  The congregation swelled to 21 that day.  I finished preaching in about five minutes.  My 8 pages of hand-written notes, single spaced, and on legal sized paper, front and back, just failed to go far.  The congregation’s encouragement should have been enough to keep me going, but I choked.  I’ve been making up for it ever since.

In 1972 the United Methodist Church integrated, and congregations like Ebenezer became part of what were once white-only conferences.  Their members and leaders were invited to participate fully in the life of the denomination.

It was in Ebenezer I first heard the song:

“The Lord is blessing me

Right now!   Oh, right now!

The Lord is blessing me

Right now!  Oh, right now!

He woke me up this morning

And started me on my way!

The Lord is blessing me

Right  now!  Oh right now!”

May the Lord bless his Ebenezer, and may the people of that congregation “keep on keeping on.”

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Mills River Church in Western North Carolina

I began serving churches in the capacity of student intern the summer I graduated from college.  Duke Divinity School selected a few of us for summer internships, funded through the Duke Endowment.  We were sent to churches in communities of under 1,000 in population.  When I got the word of where I was being sent, I thought “Where is THAT?”  The card said “Horseshoe, North Carolina.”  I’d never heard of Horseshoe.  I learned the actual church was Mills River UMC with the address of Horseshoe.  I would be staying at the home of a physician whose office was at a major intersection in this little rural community about twenty minutes south of Asheville.

The afternoon after graduation, I was driving in my car to this new place.  No down time, and getting ready for my new adventure the next day as a part of the staff of this church I knew absolutely nothing about.  The family’s hospitality was gracious.  I was given a room that served as their family room, but had its own outside entrance so I could come and go without disturbing the rest of the household.  I slept on a sleeper-sofa, and had to vacuum the “innards” of the mattress off the floor each day as it was disintegrating.  The family provided my breakfast and I was to go to different homes that had signed up to feed me supper each evening.  I was on my own for lunch, and didn’t need much then as the other two meals were more than sufficient.

The congregation met in a beautiful Civil-War era brick church that was located on an old road that turned up off the river road.  The hand-made chestnut pews were not real comfortable, but the congregation was full in this chapel, and the music was led by an able choir and an organist who had a warm and loving spirit.  The pastor of the church, who was assigned to be my supervisor, was a friendly younger fellow who reminded me a lot of David Letterman.  He had a beautiful family with kids that loved attention, and I began to learn under his tutelage how to be a pastor.

The congregation was a unique mix of people.  Several were members of families that had spent several generations in this place, a valley that produced a lot of agricultural benefits.  These families worked hard at farming and struggled with the changes that were occuring in those mountains related to another group, the “snow-birds.”  Several Floridians flooded these mountains in the summer, having been drawn to the cultural life of the greater Asheville area.  Mills River was between Asheville, Hendersonville, and Brevard.  At Brevard a summer music program hosted youth from all over who produced very high quality productions:  operas, musicals, and concerts.  Hendersonville was the county seat and had the area shopping center and a little industry.  Asheville was the largest nearby place, with a complex cultural offering including an arts community, and was a stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with a major tourist attraction in Biltmore House.

A brief history of the church is available here.

I spent twelve weeks that summer in this place, learning some basics of pastoral ministry:  visitation, worship planning, preaching (I think I got to preach one time), and some servant ministry.  I was sent one week to Camp Tekoa, a United Methodist camp near Hendersonville, where I was to work with a special needs camper.  My camper didnt’ show up until midweek, so I was without anything to do the first few days.  When he arrived he was a round-the-clock case, and nearly had me whipped by the time his mother came to pick him up.  Still, it was worthwhile to learn to pay attention to someone else’s needs, especially in my 22-year old state of mind.

I didn’t accomplish a lot those twelve weeks, but I got to know some very sweet people, and to walk with some of them through some tremendously tough times.  I felt a close affinity to the early circuit riders of Holston Conference (whose territory this used to be prior to the 1890s development of the Western North Carolina conference).  At the end of the summer I packed up my little red Mazda hatch-back and headed to the big city of Durham, NC, where I would be enrolling in classes at Duke.

Photo from LandmarkHunter.com, by Michael Miller

Photo from LandmarkHunter.com, by Michael Miller

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A Second Look at Community Names

When I first got directions to the house of the woman who is now my wife, it was a little odd-sounding.  Drive over to Cedar Bluff (aptly enough named, as a bluff is there, covered in cedars and other trees).  Drive up Busthead (what?), and turn left on the Amonate Road (Amonate was a name sometimes used for Pocahontas, and the little coal camp was named for her since it was a part of the same coal seam as the one at Pocahontas, above Bluefield). If you turn right at that intersection, in what I came to learn was “downtown” Busthead, you would be in “Baptist Valley.”  But turning left, you found yourself in the Bandy community.  I found my wife’s mother’s family were Bandys.  In Bandy, there is a road to the right that goes “up Sinking Waters.”  You never come down Sinking Waters, you always go “up.”  I’ve heard people say when you come out, you’re “coming out of the holler” (hollow). If you go on up that road, you can find access to Creed Branch, and if you continue past that road, you will go over the “Little Jumps.”  This leads you to the neighborhood of Salem Primitive Baptist Church and the Dry Fork Road.  You can take the “Big Jumps” back up into Baptist Valley if you’re so inclined.  But I wouldn’t recommend it.

In Bandy proper there is a railroad underpass near the school house.  I always like to say that on this side of the underpass is Bandy, and when you go through the underpass, there’s Mo’ Bandy!

If you go on through that underpass, you can turn left to go over around Raven’s Nest Branch, or stay on the main road and take a turn up Whitaker Ridge, or go up Panther Branch, or Greasy Creek, or you can stay on the Amonate Road and cross Tunnel Hill on your way to Amonate and the Beach Fork community, which gets you back over in West Virginia.

Another little coal camp is located across Stony Ridge from where Dry Fork road comes out on the Adria road.  That’s the community of Bishop.  We have three Methodist churches around there on one circuit (meaning they share one preacher).  We like to tell the preachers there that they’ve finally made it to bishop.

If you continue on past Bishop, you end up in Anawalt, drive through Squire and Cucumber, and come out at War.  If you’ve never been to War, you should try it.  Then you can tell folks you’ve been to War and back.  Of course you can also go to Coalwood and Caretta, Berwind, or Canebrake.  Or you can climb a hill at Bishop and go through Grassy Spur.

If you go from Bandy to Jewell Ridge and Jewell Valley, you can find yourself in Pea Patch, Bear Wallow (pronounced “waller”), or even Whitewood.  There’s a place over there somewhere called “Frying Pan.”

Over in Buchanan County, the nextdoor neighbor to Tazewell County, are little places like “Drill,” “Contrary,” “Big Rock,” “Slate Creek,” which leads to Bradshaw Mountain, and Jolo.  Jolo was the first place I ever knew where they handled snakes.  And that was on TV cameras.  Now when I hear “Jolo,” I think of snake handling.

Up around Bluefield you can find yourself in places called “Falls Mills,” “Yards,” “Nemours,” and “Peeled Chestnut,” on your way to the little big town of Pocahontas.  After that is Boissevain, Abb’s Valley (named after a man who’s first name was Absolom), and Mud Fork.  Between there and Springville is Tip Top, the highest point on the Clinch Valley Railroad.

Coalfield communities are either named for people who were developing the coal or railroad, or they bear names of geographical features.  Thus, Bluefield (ostensibly named for the limestone that is prevalent in the Bluestone River) was once called “Graham,” after Thomas Graham of Philadelphia who came into the area as a carpetbagger and “discovered” the Flattop Mountain coal seam.  He developed the New River Railroad line to exploit this resource, and the towns of Pocahontas and Graham were developed in relation to that.  Graham changed its named in 1924 to Bluefield to match its sister community across the West Virginia state line, which had become the larger community since the railroad yards were located there.Itmann03

Coeburn is a contraction of two coal developer names, Coe and Burns.  The names Berwind, Gary, Iaeger, Bramwell, Jenkinjones, Vansant, Davenport, Hurley, Leemaster, Patterson, Clintwood, Fremont, Haysi, Nora, Dryden, Elydale, Keokee, Norton, Esserville, Inman, and Dante (which is pronounced here “daint”), are just some of the Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia towns that are named for people, either coal developers or family members of postmasters.

In my mountain region, we give emphasis on the first syllable of names.  St. Paul and St. Charles are pronounced “SAINT paul” and “SAINT charles.”  Knoxville and Richlands are pronounced “KNOX-vuhl” and “RICH-lands.”  Lebanon is “LEB-nun.”  It’s always fun to hear young newscasters and meteorologists who move to the area try to pronounce places.  Honaker usually gets them and Haysi.  We say “HOE-nake-er” and “HAY-Sigh.”  And of course, “Apple-AT-ya” instead of “ap-uh-LAY-sha.”  How you say it gives us huge clues about where you’re from.

 

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What’s in a Name? Communities and the People Who Have Passed This Way, Part One

The act of naming is sacred.  It harkens back to the story of Adam being charged with the responsibility of naming the animals.  Naming is important.

Not only do we name species and people, but we name places.  There’s something sacred about the names we give locations.  For instance, few people living in my family remember the names of the places on the old Smith farm down in the Bell Ridge community.  There were two prominent hills on the place which we came to call “Tater Knob” and “Chicken Ridge.”  The names weren’t as important as the fact they actually HAD names.  With designated names, it was easy to tell someone where we were, or where a stray cow had gone.  There was even a spot on the other side of one of those hills which the family had nicknamed “Egypt.”  I never got an explanation, but figured it meant if you came out of it you were delivered.  The people who own these places today know nothing of their names.

The land where I was raised had no name.  Across the state line from us (which we could see from the kitchen window) was the Tennessee community of “Morrison City,” named when the developing area had hopes of being something of significance.  If you drive through there today, you are wont to find any “city.”  But the houses are pretty close, and they are homes of the families who first came to Kingsport for work in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  A few homes were built in later decades, but the community developed in those days.  Our side of the state line was given the name “Morrison City, Virginia” by the telephone company just to distinguish us from the southern Scott County communities across the river.  But we weren’t ever part of Morrison City.  Peter Morison was the pioneer whose name was left on that place, and his descendants never came to peace with the extra “r” that was added to his name.  The community was named after a contest held at a local store over on Harrison Avenue.  I would love to know what the runner-ups were.

Morrison City was located in a valley that has long been called “Carter’s Valley.”  The name goes back to colonial days, one of the oldest settlements in Tennessee (and was so designated when Tennessee was a mere extension of North Carolina).  It extends a little into Virginia, and the folks in the Virginia section of Carter’s Valley (East Carter’s Valley Road) as well as our neighborhood in the “State Line” settlement, shared the “225” exchange on the phone system, setting us apart from most of Kingsport, TN, but being a local exchange in Tennessee.  We had to call long distance if we called across the river to our classmates in the Scott County schools.

The counties of our area were named after Americans.  Earlier counties in Virginia reflected either Indian names or lofty names honoring the royalty in England.  The county in which I was raised was named after the hero of the War of 1812:  General Winfield Scott.  At one time Gate City was named “Winfield” after him.  That soon was changed as locals decided to honor a regionally famous justice, Benjamin Estill.  Estillville was the county seat until the late 1800s when the Post Office was having trouble distinguishing between Estillville and Esserville over in Wise County.  At that time someone suggested that as Moccasin Gap was the “Gateway” to the west (at least for some folks), the town should be known as “Gate City.”  Nearby Lee County was named after “Lighthorse” Harry Lee of Revolutionary War fame, and I shouldn’t have to tell you who “Washington” County was named after.  Wise and Tazewell Counties were named after state legislators who were fighting against legislation that would create those counties.  When their names got attached to the bills, they shut the heck up.  Southwest Virginians can put up with what they have to in order to get what they want.

The Possum Creek area where my family once lived was known as “Waycross.”  I’ve often wondered how that came about.  Nearby was a railroad yard known as “Frisco Yard.”  I don’t know who “Frisco” was, but somebody thought his name would be good for the area.  There’s a really dangerous one-way railroad overpass at Frisco Yard.  Thankfully not much traffic there anymore.

Weber City is the area nearest our family that grew up alongside of Morrison City and Kingsport, as another bedroom community of the big town across the state line.  It was named when some fans of “Amos and Andy,” the radio program, heard that their fictional home town was “Weber City,” so to be smart alecks, they hung that name on the gas station at Moccasin Gap.  The name stuck.  We’re not sure a Weber family ever lived there.  But in my earliest elementary school days, we were proud to be the “Weber City Spiders.”  They changed it to “Packers” but I’ll be a “Spider” till the day I die.  A community predated Weber City at the River Bridge, once called “River Bridge” and before that “Wilhelm.”  The Wilhelm family were our neighbors across the river.  A little cemetery is beside the main highway atop a cement wall today where many of them were buried.

The community of “Bloomingdale” across the state line in Tennessee, and in the next valley to the south from Carter’s Valley, was named by Professor Joseph Ketron after he had gone up to Bloomington, Illinois for a graduate degree right after the Civil War.  Professor Ketron was a huge influence in that area, having established the Kingsley Seminary to educate the youngun’s over there.  It was named after a bishop of the Northern branch of the Methodist Church during the Civil War period.  The names “Vermont” and “Arcadia” also were from the Ketron family during those days.  The Ketron family hailed from Germany originally and came down the valley of Virginia during the 1700s, settling first at Wytheville, Virginia, then coming to Sullivan County, Tennessee rather early.  They established “Ketron’s Campground” at what is now known as Arcadia United Methodist Church.  They later took their name off it and called it “Reedy Creek Campground” prior to the name change to Arcadia.  Reedy Creek runs alongside Highway 11-W from near Bristol to the Holston River at Kingsport.

Lynn Garden was the community that grew up between Morrison City and Kingsport, among some hills, and near the “40-Acre Field,” where most of the houses went.  Harrison Hill was over at the west of Lynn Garden, connecting it with Morrison City near Bell Ridge.  This was where early roadsters would test the power of their vehicles.  If it could climb Harrison Hill without losing speed, they were proud.  When Lynn Garden Drive was built, Kyle Hill was the local landmark.  We had an old truck that would wheeze and groan and sputter going up Kyle Hill, giving it everything it had, and could almost get up to 35 mph.  When you passed the old Outlaw house (named after a family whose name was “Outlaw”) you knew you had just about cleared Kyle Hill.

Tranbarger Hollow was the little valley that Tranbarger Drive runs through, connecting to Virgil Street in Lynn Garden.  The Tranbarger family once lived there and farmed the land before development.  Tranbargers are of German extraction as well.

Named after a Scottish family, McKenzie Hollow was a short piece from Bell Ridge, and was watered by McKenzie Creek.  It’s mouth flowed into the North Fork of the Holston at the Baldwin place (where descendants of an early Baptist preacher, Noah C Baldwin, had lived).  Where McKenzie Hollow cut of to the right, you could also go left.  The house at the intersection was my great-grandparents’ home, and is still standing, with logs exposed.  The road to the left cut back in front of the old Galloway home, by the Price place, to connect with Long Hollow Road, where it comes out by Bear Town and over to “Stone Drive” just above “Fort Robinson.”

The earliest names of Kingsport were “Christiansville” and “Rossville,” named after men who capitalized on the land near the banks of the Holston at the convergence of its north and south forks.  William King won out when his salt trade fueled the flat-boating business that grew up along the river in front of Netherland Inn.  Later when the industrial developers planned the modern city of Kingsport, they took the name from the old Riverport town, but most of Kingsport’s modern town was laid out in Peltier and Lovedale, communities to the east of the old town.  I have an old envelope addressed to my family at “Peltier.”  That was somewhere near the Lynn Garden community of today.  Lovedale was where the Kingsport Laundry building used to be.  I was told Grandpa Galloway “stole” his future wife from a window of a log house that once stood there as they rode off on horseback into marital bliss.

There were people before us who called these places by different names.  Holston River was “Hogoheegee.”  The Clinch was “Pellissippi” and the Powell River was once the “Bear-grass River.”  In fact, it is an Indian (Yuchi) word describing the convergence of the waters at the Long Island of the Holston, an ancient place where treaties were made, “tana-see” which meant “Meeting Place” that gave the state of Tennessee it’s name (according to one source).  What folks will call these places in coming years and centuries, we know not.  But one thing is certain, the naming of a place gives it identity and reminds us that others have been here before us.

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Valentine’s Day on Up in the Hills

It was early in my life that I learned about Valentine’s Day.  I think we cut out big ole hearts during Sunday School in Mrs McKenzie’s and Mrs Frazier’s class.  We probably put a “I love you Mom” message on it and went about our merry way, covered in Elmer’s Glue and glitter.  We might even have put on our little white Children’s Choir Robes with the big red bows on the front and stood in front of the congregation and looked down at the floor while the preacher’s wife tried to get us to sing some beautiful song about love.  I don’t remember.  Could’ve been.

But the time I remember “putting the hay in the loft” about this love issue was in 1st Grade.  Miss Mays had never been married, and so she ruled the class like we were her adopted kids, and we were supposed to be all in our straight rows, smiling at the appropriate moment after the late bell rang.  I had done my research.  I looked the class all over, trying to figure out which little girl I would marry.  Some were taller than me, that put them off my list.  Others were a little too prissy, and I felt like they’d want my money.  So, I searched and searched, and out of a class of about 31 little boys and girls, about half being little girls, and being careful not to take the love interest of any of my friends, I finally narrowed it down to one.  This nameless little girl (she’s still living and doesn’t deserve the notoriety, so I’m not naming her), became the object of my affection.  I had even gone all out and visited the good bubblegum machine at the barber shop.  Out had come a beautiful ring with a little green stone.  It was perfect.  I kind of hated to give it away, it was that nice.  A whole nickel had been expended, and that was big spending for me in 1970.

So I talked to her and told her that I had decided we’d probably end up getting married after we get all through school.  (What an opening line).  She nodded in agreement.  I think she caught a glimpse of that ring.  I went ahead and gave it to her.  She was all smiles.  I couldn’t be prouder.  This decision being made, I could get on with my studies and figure out what I would need to do for a living so we wouldn’t starve to death when the young’uns came on.  This was the beginning of the school day.

Sometime during that day, Miss Mays, the school teacher, the authoritarian, domineering, paddle-waving teacher who had never been married, interviewed the chosen little gal, and found out the ins and outs of this grand scheme.  She wanted to know where she got the green stoned ring.  This little girl had the gift of gab at the time and told everything she knew.  After the Ice Cream Recess (the one after lunch, the one nobody in the class could hardly wait for), I was summonsed to the desk of the mighty teacher.  I felt like I was singing in the choir.  I looked down at the floor and nervously answered her questions.

Soon the engagement was pronounced annulled, and I was back to square one.

This hampered my social development for decades.

But all is well.  Soon after seminary, I was walking into the “Bob’s Barbeque and Country Store” in Belfast, Virginia, and a sweet middle-aged lady called me aside and looked at me and asked:  “Brad, would you like to meet someone?”  I wasn’t sure what she meant, so I said yes just to be polite.  I was told about this young lady who worked at the nearby community college.  I was at once interested and pleased that the lady talking to me thought I might be a catch for someone.  After all, I had just spent seven years in college and seminary, studying New Testament Greek and contextual theology and even a little Hebrew and the Old Testament Book of Job, so my self concept was a little nerdy.

I was told to wait a time with patience until she could be notified, and afterwards we would be meeting.  On the way to my mother’s house the next few days for Thanksgiving, I remember praying a very specific prayer, telling God how much I needed a spouse and what qualities I preferred in one.  I hadn’t seen this young lady yet, and didn’t know much, only that she was very faithful in her church and had come from a little place in Tazewell County named “Bandy.”

When we met, I was taking some things to our Christmas Project for poor kids, and needed to pick several items up at the college that had been in the matchmaker’s car.  When I asked my now wife for a date, she dropped her jaw in recognition that I was indeed the person she had been told about, but since she was working she hadn’t remembered the meeting was happening that day.  She only would tell me she would pray about it.  So I went about my way and called her on Christmas Day to check on her.

She had been praying that if it was the Lord’s will we should date, that I would contact her by phone.  So it opened a door when I actually did that.  Soon we started dating.  In time we got married, and have been together now some 21 years.  I hate to admit, but my first grade teacher knew her stuff.  This one is God’s gift for me, and my best friend and companion and prayer partner.  I couldn’t think of a better Valentine.

So, Happy Valentine’s Day, Tammie!  And all you who read this, Happy Valentine’s Day!!  Spread the love!!val

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When Full Service No Longer Referred to the Gas Station

Once we were a farm family.  Then there was the Massage Parlor period.

Shortly after the family who had resided in the big stone house at the top of the hill across from our house died, their survivors sold the land at auction and some developers bought it.  Strike that.  The bootlegger and his buddy who later went to prison for selling drugs, bought it.  Of course I wasn’t sure what a bootlegger was in those days and didn’t know much about drugs except that once in a while somebody said something about them on “Good Times” or some other TV show, and of course occasionally a preacher would slip an anti-drug message into the sermon so as to stay “culturally relevant.”  This was the early to mid 1970s.  I couldn’t been more than ten.

Anyhow, Mr Cleek and Mr Hilton cleared the lot, knocked down about half of those beautiful maple trees that lined the old driveway, and scraped the hill flat.  We were just sure we’d get a new grocery store or some other good shopping center.  We were getting so excited.  I’d play in the dirt in front of the driveway with my toy dump trucks while watching the real thing across the road.

I went off with my grandfather to the stock yard one Saturday and when we came back we noticed they had placed a trailer in the middle of the new lot, thrown some gravel in front of it and put up one of those little rented lit signs with movable letters.  Welcome the “Magic Fingers Massage Parlor.”  No more than three hundred feet from our front door, it stayed lit all night long and flashed it’s seductive message (the massage message) to passersby on the highway, and it came straight into my room and made new designs on the walls.  My question “What’s a massage parlor?” was met with nervous silence.

So as the adults in the family were chewing on this new development, I found a place to throw my little noisemakers I had bought at the flea market that day, a kind of firecracker that doesn’t take a match, just drop it on something hard like a rock or cement, and it “pops” like the sound of a small gun.  I was having a time with those things while the family was trying to come to terms with the new development at the new development.  It seemed to be a consensus that the bootlegger and the future drug lord were just out after a quick buck instead of doing something for the good of the community.  It kind of threw us into grief.  We no longer had the bucolic front yard that faced the old road with hills and the far off Clinch Mountain.  Gone was the view of the two hemlocks on the mountain through which you could see sky poking through their lower branches that had appeared to us like the head of a large cat watching us from the ridge top.  Now we were even told not to spend too much time in the front yard.

That was all right, we had just recently gotten an air conditioner, and the inside was becoming more pleasant than the steamy outside.  I missed the long driveway up the hill with the beautiful maples.  I missed going to the neighbors’ big, stone house to trick or treat.  And I missed watching the big trucks move dirt on the new lot.  Original-pop-pop-snaps-fireworks

Soon a massage parlor popped up in Lynn Garden.  Another on Wilcox Drive.  Flashing signs always accompanied them.  Silly names were on the signs like “Magic Touch” and “Moonlight Massage.” (What’s moonlight got to do with it?).  Soon they were going in on the Bristol Highway too.

My aunt and uncle had inherited the lot where the old barn was, and most of it contained flat land right beside the four-lane highway.  My mom’s brother had already been running a little mini-golf and a snake-pit on this lot with a car wash he had moved there from across the river.  For a few dollars you could wash and vacuum your car, go look at several poisonous snakes, and play a couple rounds of mini-golf.  But soon my aunt started throwing her weight around and told him to close down because she wanted to lease this land to someone who wanted to develop it.  You could see the dollar signs in her eyes every time she talked about it.  Uncle Bud moved the car wash to a little spot beside our house, and closed down the mini golf and snake pit.  I thought the neighborhood was deteriorating.  We speculated that a new store might be coming.  We were sort of excited although we were still burned from this other thing.

Our aunt soon assured us that she had placed in the lease a clause stating whatever business went in could not sell alcohol.  Well, guess what.  A trailer, a little sign, and soon we had another massage parlor.  She forgot they might do that.

Little by little I came to understand what the massage parlors were for.  There couldn’t be THAT many people seeking the therapeutic relief of a real masseuse.  My buddy and I snuck over to my aunt’s new business one day when it was closed and peeped into the back double doors of the trailer.  We read the sign.  It was filled with menu items from which one could choose.  At my young age, I couldn’t understand most of it.  But the one thing that intrigued me was the notice that for $10 more dollars, any choice could be delivered “topless.”  Now I was getting the picture.

After we got this new information it wasn’t long before we were hiding behind hay bales up the hill behind this little place, acting like we were smoking our corn cob pipes, trying to get a first hand look at what was described.  Of course we were not able to do any good.  If any of the ladies did come out on the back porch, it was only to lay in the sun in their negligees. They looked a little old, and somewhat “big boned.”  So we just laughed about it and went on about our lives.

But the most glorious thing happened one evening at the first trailer, the one I described above, the “Magic Fingers” massage parlor on the bootlegger’s land.  One Saturday night it went up in flames.  It was completely destroyed.  Apparently no one was there, and it just burned to the ground.

My mother denies saying this now, but I distinctly remember her telling people at church the next morning about this tragic fire, and how she just hated to see it go, but that it had been a lot of competition for her.  Nervous laughter ensued.  She wasn’t serious.  But we were trying to adjust to the times.  And the neighborhood.  And a sense of humor was helpful.  We were just thankful when they didn’t build it back, but replaced it with a mobile home sales place that remains to this day.

Soon the others went away too.  For now.

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Preaching to the Choir

I have always loved music.

I used to think singing was the most fun we had at church.  And when the congregation moved into the new sanctuary I was fascinated with the new box Miss Jean played, called a “organ.”  I had never heard of one.

I soon learned the numbers of my favorite songs in the “Cokesbury Hymnal,” the little brown book that was placed as a supplement in the pew racks of our church.  It was filled with singable, old songs, and it fit better in a child’s hand.  Numbers 121, 95, 153 were my favorites.  You had to know your number to holler it out when they asked for a request.  This was the lifeblood of my personal spirituality when I was kid.

0337=337

I loved it when we had a quartet come sing for a Sunday evening.  The Victory Trio was one that came and filled our little church with the sound of 1970s Southern Gospel.  Big ole speakers would be placed in the front and we’d hear opinions on how much they didn’t need those for weeks after the singing was over.

Then one Sunday we hosted the Emory & Henry College Concert Choir.  I don’t think I was able to close my gaping mouth during the entire concert.  They were awesome.  College kids were so grown-up like, and they were all dressed so fine in their long dresses and tuxedos.  When they sang, the sound just enveloped the room, and reverberated with depth that went all the way down into the bottom of your heart.

They were under the direction of a man from Tazewell, Virginia by the name of Charles R Davis.  “Chick” was a former football standout-star at the college, having played in some important matches during his student days.  He went to grad school at Westminster Choir College where he learned some wonderful techniques that gave the choir he founded at Emory & Henry its signature sound for many years.

In this concert at my home church they sang a beautiful piece from “The Seven Last Words of Christ” by Dubois.  “Father, father, father, forgive them,” began the bass soloist, answered by the tenor:  “And the people clamored” then the chorus:  “He is death guilty, he is death guilty, let us crucify him!!!”  The drama and the beauty of the sound was mesmerizing.  Sometime during this concert I made up my mind to go to this school.

Later in the concert they sang pieces from the Black Gospel tradition, songs like “Ain’t Got Time to Die” by Hall Johnson.  The soloist begins “Lord, I keep so busy praising my Jesus” answered by the same words from the choir, with “Ain’t got time to die” as the main phrase.  “If I don’t praise him, the rocks’ gonna cry out!”  This music at good volume by young voices was so energetic and moving I just wanted to keep hearing it.

Then they ended the concert in the Peter Lutkin benediction:  “The Lord bless you and keep you.”

This choir did indeed draw me to the college in 1982 upon graduating from High School.  In the time between that concert and the time I got there, my sister had also gone there and majored in music.  I went with the idea I was going to study religion.  After all, Emory & Henry was founded by Methodists.

One of the high points of my time in the Concert Choir was the work we were given to do in giving world premiere of a work by Randall Thompson, a pretty famous American composer, who wrote his final choral piece, the “Twelve Canticles,” and dedicated it to our choir.  We were on National Public Radio and our local Public radio station at Johnson City, TN broadcast the entire concert.

Thompson’s work was a beautifully, typically haunting set of verses which he chose and set to music that blended from one to the next.  “God is a Spirit” is perhaps the most hallowed of the set.  You may view the choir singing it under Doc Davis’s direction at a Homecoming Concert (with choir alumni) in the college chapel at this link.

I was able to sing some with the Divinity School Choir at Duke University and even tried singing with the Chapel Choir at Duke, although I just wasn’t cut out for their style.  Voice lessons with Chick Davis were aimed at different outcomes than what these choirs needed.  But I’ve always loved the Emory & Henry choir, even if the songs were a bit highbrow for my upbringing.

Some of my favorite memories have been times I’ve been in churches, of all sizes, singing and listening to others sing.  I still think that’s the most participatory thing we do in church.  Joining our voices together in common praise is a blessing.  Listening to others praise God with their voices is also a blessing.

Whether singing with the children’s choir in our white robes with the big red bows on them, or singing in a country church somewhere in our street clothes, or singing in a college choir with a tuxedo on, music is truly a gift God has given us to help us deal with the many seasons and moods of life while aiming our praise toward the Author of our salvation.

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Recycling, . . . Sort of

On the farm, we try to take care with things and use them as long as we can, since cash isn’t growing on trees.  At least not on our farm.  So we do things with the things we have so we can still have things when we need them later.

Like the garden.  We always plowed the garden “trash” back under the soil so it would make some nutrition for next year’s crop.  We scattered ‘backer stalks (tobacco for those who don’t know the jargon) all over the field so it would help the next year’s allotment get met.  You keep your grease on the stove in a little can so that when you need to make gravy you’ve got some.  Sometimes you need to.

And we always cleaned out the barn in the spring.  I hope you’re not eating, I need to get a little graphic here.  We cleaned the manure out of the barn.  If we didn’t, in a few years the cows would be standing just under the tin above the hay loft.  It didn’t take long to “hit the ceiling” in our barn.  You know, on a farm, “poop happens.”  And so there was this wonderful little machine we pulled on the back of the tractor that had to be filled first with manure (the polite word) from the barn.  We worked for several days.  It took a good bit to fill the bin up on the Manure Spreader, which looked a lot like this:

God blessed us with resources to fill this every year.  And we loved "spreading it around"

God blessed us with resources to fill this every year. And we loved “spreading it around”

So there was this one year I was helping fill the spreader up.  Pappaw was good at driving the spreader all over our hills, tossing dung as he went, chewing tobacco and scaring passersby on the highway as they saw him take up the steep hills, slinging the load behind him.  When we moved into our new house, he lovingly supplied the fertilizer for our new lawn, since the site prep men had taken it down below the topsoil.  Our land needed a boost.  Pappaw needed a place to sling.  I had to mow later.  And watch my step.

But I was helping him each day as soon as I disembarked from the school bus.  It let me out at the corner of the pasture road, across from the “Shop” and the tractor shed.  I went joyfully through the gate, excited to yack about my school day.  I had recently gotten my braces off and looked good with my smooth, straight teeth.  But I was made to wear a “retainer,” which was custom fit to my mouth, and after a day at school, found itself in my shirt pocket due to teenage angst about who saw me with it in my mouth.  I had done this several days and it was habit-forming.

I went into the red barn, found a pitch fork and commenced “pitching.”  Soon we had enough to spread.  I was standing in the cattle chute when I reached in my pocket for my retainer.  Said dental equipment aforementioned now was found absent from said storage area.  “Oh no!”  I broke out in a nervous sweat.  I was already sweating from all that pitching, but now I was nervous too, and the sweat turned cold.  This thing cost money.  We went on a search.  As I considered the  consequences of this situation, I lost interest in finding it.

I still have dreams of watching my retainer fly up in the air off the back of the manure spreader.  I’m sure if someone had a metal detector, and a lot of time, well, don’t bother.  I’ll live with the crooked teeth.

And the bright green hills of home will be my reminder.

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Things a 50-Year Old Baby Boomer Remembers (A List)

The Kendalls

Ferrante and Teicher

Laugh-in (Verrrrry Interesting!!!!)

Polyester Leisure Suits

Nixon’s Five-oclock shadow

George C Scott refusing his Oscar for “Patton”

Eight-track tapes

Hair dyers with tubes and plastic caps

Mallow cups

Bra-burning

Kent State

Vietnam

Making coffee with “Percolators”

Sugar Cubes

Avon bottles

Getting a wooden ruler from Smokey the Bear

Bottle openers on Soda coolers

Lance snacks

Richie Rich comic books (And Archie, and Caspar)

Hot Wheels

Wurlitzer Fun Machines

Pedal Cars

“Land of the Lost”

Romper Room

Cap guns and stick ponies

Mood Rings

Silly Putty

Hee Haw

Back-masking

Rat Tails

“You can’t fool Mother Nature”

Ginsu Knives

The Gong Show

Patty Hearst

Pettycoat Junction

The Ponderosa

Western Sizzlin’

Transistor Radios

CB Radios

Short-wave Radio

Klinger

Marmaduke

Pig Pen

DeLoreans

Lewis Grizzard

Milk delivered to the door daily

Amway

Studebakers

Valleydale commercials

“like Father, like son” (anti-smoking commercial)

“You’ve come a long way, baby” (Virginia Slims commercial)

The Marlboro Man

Mopeds

The Red Dye scare

Ethel Merman

Bozo the Clown

Polaroid

“Solid State”

“Here I come to save the day!”

Droopy Dog

Fat Albert

“Order in the Courtroom, Here come da Judge!”

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie

Chewing Gum Wrapper chains

String Art

Rhoda

Rosanna, Rosanna Danna

Aunt Esther

Mrs A-Whiggins

Slim Whitman

Mack Davis

The Rockford Files

 

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Spring Chickens

I must have been five or six years old when the chickens came.

We had learned that it was not wise to keep chickens, as the traffic from the nearby highway, as well as the occasional car on the old road, would pretty much eliminate them from existence after a while.   Cars and chickens don’t mesh well.

But our neighbors had gotten some hens, and for some reason they didn’t like their house, so they came down to our barn and roosted in the barn loft.  Soon we were finding eggs in the hay.  So one of my duties when I would go to the barn with Pappaw was to pick up the eggs.  I had small hands, no basket, and had to use what I had, so my shirttail, my pockets, whatever, was used to carry out this chore.  After a bit, when all the chores were finished, I was to go to the back porch and completely divest myself of all hen-eggs.  So I did.

Back to the merry business of being a little boy, I wondered across the old road to the garden spot where I was doing who knows what.  Then my Pappaw hollered at me.  Probably inviting me to go with him to the little store down the road where we would get a pop and some bubble gum.  I was always glad to go with Pappaw anywhere he wanted to take me.  And trips to the store were always welcome interruptions to my day.

So, in showing my excitement, I slapped my hands to my side.  Then I remembered where I had put one of those eggs.  All of a sudden, I found egg innards sliming their way down the legs of my shorts.  My joyful “slap” had broken the shell and emptied its contents in my pocket.  My dear Pappaw waited patiently while I trampsed down the lane to my house to change and clean up.

So much egg-citement.

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Christmas with Boiled Custard: I’ll Have Mine with Calf Slobbers!

One of the ancient Christmas traditions in our family, living near the south bank of the North Fork of the Holston River, in Scott County, Virginia, was to gather in at the old family homeplace.  Granddaddy Ketron was still living when I was little, so we would all go over there to help him have Christmas.  At one time the family gatherings there included his neighbors, brothers and sisters, and all his children, grandchildren, etc.  By the time I came along, the celebrations were becoming a little sparser, just our branch of the family, filling the house with laughter, cigarette smoke, and stories.

The kitchen was the hub of activity, and as was often the case in those days, the women of the family, including the little girls, would gather in there and cook, talk, laugh, and generally create dinner.  All the while the men of the family were gathered in the living room (which was heated for this occasion, normally it was shut off from the rest of the house and left cold), talking, laughing, grinning, and smoking or chewing.  When the time came to eat, we gathered as close to the kitchen as we could get, someone would pray in a low voice, the one time we were all quiet, and then we’d load up our plates.

Often at the table would be a collection of country food:  meat, potatoes, vegetables, and dressing.  In later years, to relieve Mammaw from the huge task of preparing a meal, the women of the family suggested we only do desserts at these gatherings, so we did that.  But always, without fail, there was a big old jar, which I’d say would hold at least two gallons, and it was filled with this creamy, milky liquid we called “Boil-t Custard.”  (Pronounced with that “t”).  Mammaw liked to make it with fresh milk from “Jersey,” our milk cow.  After the cow was sold and the farming chores simplified, she tried it with store-bought milk, but preferred getting fresh raw milk for the special treat.

I don’t know what all else went in it, I’m sure eggs and sugar.  It had to be stirred constantly as she made it, and when completed, I remember it often being put in the refrigerator that stood on the back porch.  They had purchased it in 1943 with money they received from the state when the road was relocated to the back of the house.  It was still running in the 1990s.

The last thing that happened to the custard before it was finished was that Mammaw would make some meringue to be added to the top of the custard.  It floated on top of the jar, and it was always good to top off your dose.  Pappaw called this “calf slobbers.”  If you ever worked cattle, you know why.  It looks just like the foamy stuff that gathered in the mouths of young cattle while they were nursing.

To take your custard, you could drink it from a cup, or pour it over a piece of cake.  Mammaw would usually have a white cake with white icing and coconut sprinkled on top, or sometimes a white cake and caramel icing.  Other times she might have a jam cake or red velvet cake.  Any of it was good with boiled custard poured over it.

Eating your cake and boiled custard with calf slobbers in the presence of a decorated cedar tree topped with an aluminum foil-covered five-pointed star with an electric light in the middle is a luxury of the first class sort.  Kind of makes you think about how sweet that little baby was.

Merry Christmas from the waters of possum creek.

Grandaddy Ketron in the living room at Christmas

Grandaddy Ketron in the living room at Christmas

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Birds, Feathers, and Flocking Together

One of the more curious Appalachian traditions I’ve heard has to do with the meaning of things that happen occasionally.  Things like the fogs in August (which is not just Appalachian), that tradition purportedly tells you how many snows you’re going to get in the winter.  I’m not sure these things carry much authority with them, but they certainly give fodder to conversation.

One of these traditions is the meaning of a bird in the house.  I was home from seminary a few years ago, over Christmas Break, when my mother lived on Garden Creek in the Methodist Parsonage (in Buchanan County, Virginia).  We found a bird in the room I was to spend the night in.  We carefully urged it outdoors, after which my mother told me that the old folks used to say when ever a bird was in the house, it was a sign someone was going to die.  I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of that, but was glad to pack it away in my store of Appalachian wisdom.

When I was preaching at the church at Belfast, Virginia, one Sunday, we had all the doors and windows open due to the heat (and lack of air conditioning), and a starling came flying in the church.  It flew around a bit and landed on the window screen on the south side of the church.  I stopped talking for a few seconds (which is a miracle in itself), while one of the men of the church went over to the window and grabbed the bird and walked outside to release it.  I said something like:  “on the day of Pentecost it says the Holy Spirit descended like a dove.  I don’t know what it means that a blackbird has descended on us.”

I had grown up sleeping on a borrowed feather pillow.  They said it had come from “Bockie’s” room at my grandmother’s house.  Bockie was my grandmother’s uncle.  His real name was Mark, but when she was little, all she could say was “Bockie” so everybody called him that.  My mother decided to make a new cover for this pillow, and use the same feathers.  So she ripped the seam of the old pillow to transfer the feathers and found a mat of feathers.  As she pulled it out, she discovered what folks call a feather “Crown.”  Another symbol, I was told, that someone was going to die.  What is it about signs of mortality.  Bockie had died about 17 years before I was born.  So, maybe it was him.  I lived to tell about it, so apparently it wasn’t me.  Yet.  She still has this thing stored in a little box somewhere.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is the tradition that says that on “Old Christmas” (again, an Appalachian tradition), the animals talk, or some say pray, in human languages.  This is the notion behind the carol “The Friendly Beasts.”  In it there is a verse about doves.  I used to go to the barn in the winter and feed the cattle.  I noticed the birds would roost there in the evenings, and stick around hoping for a morsel or two from the cattle feed.  I can attest that I never heard one of them talk out loud.  But it seemed they had plenty stored up they wanted to say should they be granted the ability.  I’m still going out there one old Christmas (January 6) and find out.

Maybe these traditions are related to the coal miners and their canaries.  The canaries were expendable.  If they died they saved lives.  There’s a redemption story there somewhere.  But birds and death and life seem interrelated somehow.

Might be a good time to fix the Christmas turkey.  That’s the only bird that’s welcome in the house right now.

English: Female House Sparrow, Bairnsdale Aust...

English: Female House Sparrow, Bairnsdale Australia. Taken in September 2006. See also Image:House sparrow03.jpg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Remembering Aunt Sadie

That the Scott family is a little “different” is an understatement.  We have our characters.

I was about 7 or 8 years old when I met my Pappaw Scott’s sister, Sadie.  She was pretty much a free spirit.  We were going to a family reunion in Wise, Virginia, across from the Fairgrounds at Aunt Lillie Beverly’s house.  The excitement at this gathering was the rumor that our cousin, George C Scott would be there.  Of course, he didn’t come, but his dad and granddad were there.  His granddad Will went around and hugged every woman there.  Besides this bit of familiarity, there was Aunt Sadie.  She had come to this reunion prepared.  She passed out gifts to each family there.

I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Aunt Sadie was married four different times.  That’s pretty mild for our family.  I think she was married to Uncle Harry Vaughn by this time, her last husband, and the one who was still with her at her death in 2007.  It was her marriage to Uncle Harry that kind of settled her down.  They loved to research the family’s history.  I had already gotten the genealogy bug by this time, but when Harry and Sadie came to my grandparents’ home sometime in the early 1980s, I was shown the family tree chart they had put together.  I got a lot of information off it, yet found out later they had made some wrong assumptions about our main line.  But most of their information was very well researched.  It was their research that helped me find out I was descended from an Indian named Dale, and the man who adopted him, Patrick Porter, and the Kilgore family from Scott County, Va.

I saw Sadie the last time at the Beverly home place, the site of that reunion where I first met her.  It was about the year 1998 or so.  She tried to sit on everybody’s lap at least once.  I told you she was a free spirit.  She came by it honest, as we say in the mountains.  He daddy, James Patton Scott, in his 80s would go up to people and declare:  “I can jump over your head!”  People would look at him in disbelief and then say, okay!  He’d tell them to lay down on the floor, and then he’d literally jump over their head.  These are my genes.

Well back to the gifts at the first reunion.  That year Aunt Sadie made “sugar teats” to pass out to the family.  She took a square of cloth, placed a lump of brown sugar on it, tied it with a piece of string, and that was it.  You see, in the days before pacifiers, babies were given these things to help them when they were teething or just needed to be comforted.   Aunt Sadie was celebrating her heritage that day.

May we all learn to enjoy life like Aunt Sadie.

The Scott Aunts and Uncles at Aunt Julie's house.  Sadie is in the front row.

The Scott Aunts and Uncles at Aunt Lillie’s house. Sadie is in the front row, brown top, curly hair.

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Reflections on Appalachia, Part One: Mountaineers are Always Free!

I am taken with the stories of the settlement of my home region in the early history of the United States.  The mountains became a home of hope for many who were getting away from something worse somewhere else.  Their satisfaction with this land was enthusiastic partly because here they were truly free from the oppression of the European Aristocracy with its arrogant classist attitudes and hierarchical structure.  They forged a culture here that encouraged freedom of thought and freedom of spirit.

One of my favorite stories that exemplifies this is the development of the little town of Jonesborough, in what is now Tennessee.  It was founded in 1779 as an outpost in the newly-formed Washington District (the first community in America named after the General and future president of the US).  The legislature of North Carolina claimed control of the area and so they chartered the town, naming it after the venerable Willie Jones of Halifax, a man of some influence in the Dan River Valley along the North Carolina/Virginia border.  Jones had become convinced of the need to expand the state across the mountains and his support made the formation of a seat of government there a reality.  So he was rewarded with becoming the namesake of the town that formed there by legislative action.

Jonesborough soon became the first capital of a new state, the State of Frankland or Franklin.  This was before the young nation had decided how to form new states, and so this effort was a pioneering one in forming new partitions within the sphere of influence of the US.  It was formed in 1784, and was composed of lands in what is now East Tennessee and portions of southwest Virginia.  The freedom of self-determination was intoxicating for the mountaineers.  They were finally in charge of their own destiny from a political vantage point, yet even with this new situation there was soon trouble.  Some who didn’t like separating from the mother state of North Carolina formed a powerful minority and battles were fought between the Franklinites led by Governor John Sevier and the Tiptonites led by Colonel John Tipton.  With other influences the new state’s fortunes were soon ended and by 1789 the territory was included in a US Territory (the “territory South of the Ohio”), with territorial government located a few miles from Jonesborough at a farm known as Rocky Mount.  The State of Tennessee would not be developed as a governmental unit until 1796.

The families who made up this entity were many of the same who had gathered at Sycamore Shoals in 1780 to travel together as a militia to a place near the South Carolina border known as “King’s Mountain.”  They fought hard and used their trusty long rifles and tactics of battle which they had probably learned from the Cherokee and other tribesmen.  Their warfare led to a mighty routing of the British, even the death of their commander in that place.  It was the news of this battle that led in part to the famous action in Yorktown, Virginia soon thereafter when Cornwallis surrendered and the United States was free of British rule.  When mountaineers decide to take action, look out.  They are a determined lot.

So back in the town of Jonesborough, there was much marrying and giving in marriage as families grew and civilization became secure.  But the ways of the wilderness continued to influence the region.  In the second decade of the 19th century a pair of brothers named Embree, who were Quakers, decided to start a newspaper.  The Emancipator was the nation’s very first newspaper dedicated to the abolition of slaves, and it was generated in the town of Jonesborough, Tennessee.  This was in what is known as the American South.  But in the mountains of East Tennessee, where freedom was deep in the veins of the people.

In fact, even as late as the Civil War, the sympathy of many East Tennesseans and Southwest Virginians (and indeed several people in the westernmost parts of Virginia who would pull out later and form the state of West Virginia) ran largely pro-union.  The sentiments were so strong that politicians in the more slavery-dependent west and middle regions of the state could not get the votes to secede until 1861, making them the last state to secede.  As soon as the war was over they were the first state to return.  They had contributed Lincoln’s vice president to the nation, Andrew Johnson, a man who would succeed the war president, and whose home was in Greeneville, Tennessee (that mountainous, eastern part of the state, again).  Johnson’s acquaintance, a Methodist preacher who had gone into very vitriolic unionist Republican newspaper publishing (whose newspaper was once called the “Whig and Rebel Ventilator”) William G. Brownlow, would ascend after the war to the governor’s mansion of the state of Tennessee in its post war, Republican-led existence.  Brownlow’s home in the 1830s and 1840s was, you guessed it, Jonesborough.  That he is known as “the most hated politician in Tennessee history” does not take into account the huge support he mustered from the eastern counties.  In many of the mountain communities there were Methodist Churches after the war located side-by-side, one of southern affiliation, and the other of northern affiliation, directly linked to Brownlow’s interests.  The Methodists in Jonesborough fought over the building and had to get a judge to rule who owned it after the war.

I am telling you this to illustrate a point.  You can’t second-guess mountain people.  They have their own opinions.  They cannot be easily fit into a mold.  As soon as Mountaineers detect you’re trying to fit them into your categories, they’ll blow your categories to smithereens.  It’s a multi-generational, deeply held viewpoint.  The title of this essay is directly influenced by the state motto of the mountain state itself, West Virginia.  Montani Semper Liberi

If you want to make a mountaineer mad, just try to tell them they “have” to do something or other.  Go ahead, try.  You’ll get a quizzical look, a stoic silence, and you’ll be lucky if you get home without a tail-end full of buck shot.  Non-conformity isn’t just a value, it’s a survival skill.

Deutsch: William Gannaway Brownlow, Gouverneur...

Deutsch: William Gannaway Brownlow, Gouverneur von Tennessee (1865-1869) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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A List of Things I’m Thankful for

This week there’s been plenty of attention on shoppers getting carried away with bargains that went into effect on Thanksgiving Day.  Someone stabbed someone over a parking place right here in Tazewell County, Virginia about thirty minutes away from my house.  It made the news.  It also made me think about simpler times when people weren’t so wound up with things as they are now.  So in reflection I’m producing a list of things I’m thankful I had a chance to experience in my life.  Some of these things are already gone, but here’s my list, in no particular order.  I’m thankful:

  • for growing up in a time during which you could play “Cowboys and Indians” with little metal toy guns and you could play like you were dying with great emotional pathos and nobody minded.  As a descendant (partially) of Indians, and a descendant of people whose families were attacked and brutally killed by Indians, I can tell you I don’t mind a bit when folks use terms like “Redskins.”  People should get over theirselves.
  • for getting to go to Downtown Kingsport when I was a kid, when it was still a vital downtown with big stores.  I walked my legs off trying to keep up with my momma, but there were things down there and the “hustle and bustle” of the Christmas shopping season was pretty neat back then before the days of the malls and shopping centers.  And the Church Circle nativity scene was so pretty before they repainted it.   I’m glad I got to experience that.
  • for growing up in a time when it was normal to go to Church every Sunday.  And Wednesday.  And sometimes Thursday.  And week-long revivals and Bible School, and singings and dinner on the grounds, and preaching that was unapologetically Biblical (King James Version), and full crowds.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty neat.
  • for growing up on a farm.  Learning about tobacco, milking a cow, taking cattle to market, fixing fence, growing a garden, putting up hay, walking the pasture, salting the cattle, getting to hold the electric fence until you felt the jolt and laughing about it, going berry picking, hog-killing time, applebutter-making, breaking beans and canning, driving tractors and shooting mistletoe out of tall trees with a shotgun.
  • for growing up during a time that school days were started with the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer said over the loud speaker, and Mr Tildey coming around with a felt board about once a month telling us some of the most fascinating Bible Stories we’d ever heard.  And teachers who ruled the room with a paddle.
  • for the opportunity to take piano lessons.  Even though I went through spells I didn’t want to do it, I have enjoyed playing the piano, and later the organ, all my days.  And I’m glad I never had Mrs. Edwards, the teacher my sisters took lessons from.  She would hit them on the knuckles with a ruler when they hit wrong notes.  I think she had dementia.
  • for close proximity in my growing up days to grandparents and aunts and uncles.  I learned so much from them, and it was nice to have places to go that were safe and nearby.  Even though my grandfather got in trouble when I was little for coming by and picking me up for a ride to town without telling my mother.  Extended family is a blessing
  • for an excellent liberal arts education at Emory & Henry College.  This college was founded in 1836 (three years before Indian Removal) as a place of education by the Methodists of the region.  It has become a world-class college and produces great leaders and has made a productive adult out of me and many others.
  • for churches that have supported my education and training through the years.  The church where I played the organ and piano during college for some extra spending money, the church where I preached my first sermon, the churches where I was employed as an intern during seminary, and the churches I’ve pastored since 1989.
  • for books.  Having been raised by a family that had something to do with the Kingsport Press, I have enjoyed getting to know about how books are made, and reading them and mining their knowledge.  I have enjoyed studying the best book ever, the Holy Bible, and seeing places like St Jerome’s cave underneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where he translated the Vulgate (the most definitive Latin translation of the Scripture).  And I’m thankful that in these days after the Kingsport Press has shut down, been torn down, and the land redeveloped, that there has formed a center for higher education in the downtown area where books used to be made as a place to train people to use the knowledge books still hold.  It used to be said you could go to Kingsport with a tree and come out with a book.  Now you can read it.
  • for the opportunity to travel in 1995 to the Holy Land and tour some of the ancient sites where Jesus walked and where the prophets lived out their faithful witnesses.
  • for meeting and marrying the love of my life, my wife Tammie.  For having the opportunity to meet and know her family and her home church at Bandy.
  • for the love of dogs:  Flash, Rebel, Benji, Lazarus, and Kallie.
  • for qualifying for the monickers:  hillbilly . . . redneck . . . appalachian
  • for authentic boiled custard, yellow cake with caramel icing, soup beans, corn bread, and tenderloin on home-made biscuits, Mountain Dew, fresh-from-the-garden peas with new potatoes and cream (which, by the way, I haven’t had in over a decade), and strawberries (even the wild ones made up in home-made jam).
  • for rural roads and by-ways, weathered buildings and rusty farm equipment, for little white country churches and their humble steeples, and for the red and golden leaves of autumn.
  • for my great-grandmother’s saying:  “Everything, whether good or bad, comes to an end.”
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Ode to Dr Ralph Stanley


A legend has gone to glory.

God was preparing me for this.  I’m probably the biggest Ralph Stanley fan there is.  Ever.  There was just something about the sound of his voice, the ring of his banjo, the humility of his words and actions that spoke deeply to me.  

I had to be at a funeral at Clintwood this past Sunday.  Since I was over in that area I decided to go through St. Paul, Virginia to visit some friends there on our way home.  I traveled the route through McClure, Nora, Trammel, and Dante (for you furrinners, that’s Daynt, not Dan-tay).  I traveled past the Carter Stanley and Dr Ralph Stanley roads.  I remembered the time I got to attend a “Hills of Home” festival put on by the claw-hammer banjo-ist.  I actually got to speak to him like anybody.  He was just as plain and down to earth as could be.  

In “O, Brother Where art thou?” Stanley sings an ancient ballad depicting a contest between the soul and death.  It was placed in the movie at a point where the characters find themselves in the middle of a KKK rally.  It was a perfect placement of song and cinema.  This inclusion got Dr Stanley renewed notice by the music world and he enjoyed several years of extended touring from it.  

But his collection of recordings contain even more gems that can be mined by anyone willing to give them a serious consideration.  My personal favorite is “A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy’s Grave,” an uplifting song that builds hope after the experience of loss as the singer intones the truth that springtime points toward resurrection.  

Many Ralph Stanley songs can be found on YouTube and other sites, including iTunes.  I’m going to miss the man.  His grandson, Nathan and son Ralph Stanley, II, will try and carry on his work.  But there will be no one that can replace him.  

Brother Ralph, thank you for your songs, and thank you for a life well lived.  See you in Gloryland.  

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