As we near election day in the ninth congressional district of Southwest Virginia, I can’t help but think about Glade Springs. The little town was hit hard by storms over a year ago. It is rebuilding, because you can’t stop a “Fightin’ Ninth” community. The economy may be bad, but Southwest Virginians are survivors, and it doesn’t matter what gets thrown at us, we might suffer, we might even feel diminished, but you can’t kill us. We’re like weeds, and we will come back.
Which reminds me of an experience I had in Glade Spring in 1984. My friend Scott and I were hired by a little Presbyterian Church on Grace Street in Glade Spring, across the railroad track from the main town square. I was the accompanist on the piano and organ, and Scott was the choir director. We had a little choir that acted shy at first, but soon let their personalities show, and they came to be a pretty spirited group. The major benefactor of our employment there, an area physician, had invited a black woman from nearby Ebenezer United Methodist Church to join our choir. She had some people in her family she wanted to experience a little larger congregation. Ebenezer only had about eight members. We gladly welcomed her, we wanted singers after all. The choir gave her a mixed if not cool reception. Yet over time they grew to be more accepting.
I was preparing to go into the United Methodist ministry and figured I needed some experience learning how to preach. So I talked with our Ebenezer Church member and worked out an opportunity for me to take to the pulpit for the first time in my life at her little church. A date was set for an April Sunday afternoon that year. I studied and labored and wrote and practiced and studied and labored some more. My poor college roommate, well, at least he can say he knows something about suffering.
The day and hour finally came. I had eight pages of yellow legal pad pages, hand written, single-spaced, front and back. I had practiced this message to the point of gaining some degree of assurance, timing it for about 20-25 minutes. I prayed, and worried, and prayed some more. The congregation gathered. Did I say there were eight members in that church? Word had gotten out and 21 people showed up. The community’s relationships were evident as members of Plum Creek Baptist came, along with Ebenezer’s members, and a few from the Grace Street Presbyterian Church. My friend Scott and my roommate both showed up. I began to wonder if this was a good idea or not.
But soon I found myself standing behind the church’s ancient pulpit, thinking about the messages that had been preached there over the years. The fact this church existed was witness to the idea that people had faith that God could work through small things.
So I began to unfurl the eight pages. I tried to smile, began reading, and tried to make it loud enough to hear without hollering. Five minutes later I was done. What happened to all those words I had written. I did the only thing I knew to do, I nervously ended, sat down, and the service soon concluded.
But that wasn’t the end. The kind folks who had gathered that day at Ebenezer came by where I was sitting and each one, without any exception, told me “Keep on keeping on.” I don’t think anyone was impressed that day, but I was encouraged to continue. This is the spirit of Glade Spring, and reflects a larger spirit in the whole region. We are people who encourage one another to continue. I needed that encouragement that day. Without it, I might not have pursued my calling.
I pray God’s blessing upon Ebenezer and other gatherings of people in my home region. May we continue to encourage and strengthen one another. We are all in this thing together, you know.