Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Morris Fork Presbyterian Church and Community Center, Kentucky

This Sunday, I had the privilege of meeting a church's oldest member -- a man who's been part of one church all his life, who remembered the first Sunday worship services were held in that church. His whole life, he's seen God at work through people faithfully working in one church.

It was fascinating to listen to Ed Stamper describe walking from the building where the church had met temporarily  to the brand new church building, built almost entirely by local people using local materials, for the first worship service in the new sanctuary. The land had been donated by a neighbor; the wood had been cut in the surrounding hills and hauled to the church by horses and mules, the stone had been taken from the creek that runs through the valley, and the entire structure had been built using hand tools (the community didn't have electricity until more than 20 years later). These days, Mr. Stamper comes in first thing on Sunday morning to make sure the heat's turned on, and he's the last to leave, making sure the lights are off and the building is securely closed.

When we arrived in Morris Fork, I wondered if I'd recognize the place. Twice before, I'd been in Morris Fork on youth group work camps, but my most recent visit had been more than thirty years earlier. We'd been told we were welcome to stay in the Manse, and that we could help paint the downstairs; I didn't remember a manse, let alone its downstairs. Still, I'd convinced Dean that we should visit this church, and I was happy it was still around to be visited.

Edie, who's on the chapel board and lives part time in the Manse (and who's a point person on the project of preparing the Manse to be available as a retreat center), welcomed us and showed us the house. She took us to the chapel, which is also in the process of renovation. And she loaned me a book that tells the story of the church through the memories of Aunt Nola Vander Meer, whose husband Sam was the founding pastor of the church.

I'd heard about the couple who'd founded the church, and I vaguely remembered hearing that electricity, paved roads, and telephones hadn't been around until the 1950s and 1960s, but I'd had no idea the great impact they'd had on that part of Kentucky. I hadn't known that Southport Presbyterian had been supporting Morris Fork in one way and another for over fifty years. I didn't know that church youth groups had been coming to the community for longer than that.

We arrived early enough on Wednesday to be part of two traditions of the church: Wednesday night worship and the daily ringing of the church bell at 5:00 pm. The bell calls the community to stop whatever they're doing and pray for a few minutes. The tradition began when the church first got a bell in their steeple. From what I've heard, even drivers would stop to pray when the evening bell rang. Every day while we were there, we were reminded by that bell to stop and pray.

On the other days, Dean painted from midmorning until suppertime. I primed during the afternoons, and on Saturday, two teens from the church painted as well. Edie, our hostess, scraped the stone walls, primed them and painted them, all the while answering our questions and making sure her daughter was content and occupied. To my surprise (since I worked on it fewer hours than anyone else), the painting was finished late Saturday afternoon. 

Meanwhile, workers at the Chapel were fixing the floor at the front of the sanctuary and rebuilding the front of the platform where termites had weakened the old wood. A wedding is scheduled there later in the spring, so there's a sense of urgency to the job. Outdoors, passing thunderstorms and the season covered the hills with beauty.

We woke to fog on Sunday morning, but shortly before Sunday School, it lifted above the hills, melting away to a warm, blue sky day. We went to the room where the Sunday School class meets (and, while the sanctuary is being repaired, Wednesday night and Sunday morning worship also gather there). After a lesson about the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, more people arrived for the worship service, including the teens who'd helped with the painting and a few other children and young people. Their greetings clearly showed that they know each other well, so I asked the woman next to me (who I knew came from a long-time Morris Fork family) how many people in the room were born and raised there. She glanced around, then said, "All of them, I guess."

Though the church isn't as remote as it once was, the grocery store is more than half an hour away along roads that twist among the creeks and hollers. Before the church was built here, the community had no real gathering place. Even though travel is easier now, the church still functions as a community center for those who live in the area. Over the years, it's functioned as a clinic for souls and bodies (medical and dental clinics were organized here when visiting doctors had to travel on horseback through creekbeds), as a training center to preserve traditional crafts, as a resource for agricultural innovation, and even as the kitchen where some of the first school lunches in the country were prepared.

The first time I was in Morris Fork, in 1975, we painted fences and pulled up an enormous tree stump. We played ball with local kids. I tried to learn to play the guitar and failed miserably (although I did learn to pick out the melody to "Ode to Joy"). The church itself has been through some rocky times (it was closed for a number of years, but reorganized around 2008). The inside of the church -- the building that was such a joy to the community when it was built in 1927 -- was a complete blank in my memory.

Now, having shared in a little of the life of the community (and finding out more about the congregation and the part my family church has played in its history), I understand a little better how Mr. Stamper and the whole congregation felt that day as they marched into their new building. The area is a community because of the Church. I'm so glad to have gotten to be a tiny part of it over the past 40 years. I'm eager to see how God will use it as a place of retreat and rest for the larger community in the future.

Service Length: 1 hour 11 minutes
Sermon Length: 30 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were introduced at the beginning of Sunday School and at the beginning of church, but even before that, people made a point to introduce themselves and to greet us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: our hostess, a member of the church board, gave us a goodbye hug before we left, and we received a message from Pastor Mike a few days later.
Our Rough Exact Count: 25 (it took us three tries, so it should be exact)
Probable Ushers' Count: 25
Snacks: none
Musicians: electric piano (man)
Songs: "Because He Lives" (also used as prelude before steeple bell was rung)
"Come Thou Fount"
"I'd Rather Have Jesus" (also sung on Wednesday night, both times by request)
"Jesus Loves me" (all four verses...do you know them all?)
Distance to church: 100 yards, but we walked half a mile down the road and back before Sunday school
Miles from start: 12,082 (time for another oil change!)
Total 2016 Miles: 11,825
Church website: none, although they're on Facebook