I wasn't sure what church I wanted to visit to "end" this phase of my research. I vacillated between two I had never visited nor did I know anyone connected to the church (I found them through a Google search). I decided on one that didn't have a website, and the number listed was disconnected.
I arrived early because I've had the experience of showing up at churches sometimes at 11:00 a.m. only to open the doors an hour after service began.
After arriving through twists and turns (some of them missed), I parked in the empty gravel lot, grabbed my camera, and made myself at home on the land at the end of a one lane dirt road. I said prayers of protection; had my car pointed in the direction of a quick exit, if need be; and I walked through the cemetery and around the church building. I looked at dates on tombstones and etched on bricks on the side of the building.
When I began this journey, a couple of years ago, of visiting the "old church," I thought of my father and Grandfather. They were both pastors in the A.M.E. Zion Church -- traveling, ministering, and working in the South, mainly. I thought of their passion and persistence to "preach the Good News" in time of deep racial and financial struggles. These two steadfast and faithful men, with little to their name, sacrificed more than I will ever know or understand. So, when my uncle -- one of my Dad's brothers who is also a minister -- suggested we go back in time to visit the churches my father and/or Grandfather had served as pastor before they passed (my Dad in 1996 and my Grandfather in 1988), it was a no brainer. It was an automatic, "Yes!"
Uncle LeRoy and I would hop in my car every first Sunday and drive to one of the rural churches. I had only heard of these churches but hadn't visited many of them. They were, after all, "before my time." After each Communion service, I found myself not able to let go of the experience. What was sparked by the sermon, or the church Mothers, or a song, or the cemetery turned into poetry.
So, I wrote a grant because I wasn't done traveling. I wasn't done looking in the back of these small churches at their cemeteries. I wasn't done hearing the stories of those who served these churches for decades. Thankfully, there were those on the grant committee and others who saw the vision that was birthed deep inside of me, probably before I realized it, and I was awarded funds to continue to travel the South, exploring the hidden churches, or "gems;" to unearth what many of us have forgotten, if we knew it at all. Eventually, these photos and conversations, and silent walks through cemeteries in the rural South of those whose name I do not bare will turn into poetry. Piles of poetry.
But, if I'm honest, I will tell you that after six months of research, until today I've wanted to stay "in the field" researching. I haven't felt ready to write. There was more digging to do. More understanding to gain. More space that has needed to be opened up inside of me. I've been waiting on something to say, "Go, now you're ready..."
As I write this from a coffee shop in the city I call home, I believe I am now ready to pull my notes from the journal I've carried to all 20 churches and cemeteries (10 of which were before the grant) and scribblings on church bulletins, and write. The Winston-Salem/Forsyth Co. Arts Council blessed me with the Duke Energy Regional Artist Grant to support my research. 100 West Corsicana, in TX, has awarded me a weeklong residency to write. And the timing of it all could not be better.
Here's why. (Back to the "last church" I visited as part of the research grant...)
The pastor pulled up and I immediately yet slowly and deliberately told her who I was and why I was there. (After all, I'm a stranger in gym shoes and a dress, carrying a 35 mm camera, without any invitation or permission.) She welcomed me warmly like I was long lost child. During service, she asked if I would tell the small congregation who I was and why I was there. I did and added that I would love to talk to anyone after service who had history of the church and the cemetery. About an hour or so later, as the pastor was getting ready to pronounce the Benediction, a lady a few rows behind me said she had something to share.
"I was looking through tax papers a week ago and came across history of the church my deceased brother wrote. I don't know what it was doing in those stacks of papers but I, right then, put it somewhere safe so I would know where it was in case I needed it. later" She continued, "So, I snuck out during service to make a copy of it when this young lady said she wanted to know about the church. It has everything (she looks at me), that you want to know, included who is buried in the cemetery. It's confirmation that God is in this."
I got chills as I sat on that church pew alone. The pastor then prayed -- and she prayed for me and my travels and this research and my gifts. I thought of a phrase my Dad would say when overwhelmed: "Words are poor tools."
After service, the "Mother of the church," came up to me (she's also the mother of the lady who went home to grab the research paper to give to me) and we talked. She's been a member of that church for more than 50 years. She was patient to answer my many questions. As we wrapped up she said, "We're small but we're happy." I told her I was happy, too; and that this research took me back to my roots.
You see, this may have begun as a "Faith of our Fathers" tour, but it has ended with a deepening of my own faith journey. I am thankful. The journey continues. Next up is poetry. Piles of poetry.
Let the church say, Amen.
(Want to see pictures from the 10 churches/cemeteries I've visited during this 6 month grant period? Take a peek by clicking here.)