“Lemme get this door open. Mercy, this ‘ol key is just about ready to break off, it’s so rusty. I’ll flip these lights on…y’all can just throw your stuff over yonder.”
There’s a smell in the air that makes my nose involuntarily wrinkle. The sunbeams are laden with dust as they shine through the few windows inside the sanctuary. I search my jeans pocket for my reserve allergy tablets as I glance around at the two rows of pews lined up in this tiny room. At the end of a dark hallway, is a bleak looking kitchenette.
“C’mon back, y’all, and get yourselves somethin’ to drink.”
The old gentleman points to a refrigerator that I’m sure must have been a new model--in 1957. It’s working hard to cool its innards, judging by the noise emanating from it. I gingerly accept a cup of water, and he leads us back to the sanctuary. As we pass by, he proudly points to a side room.
“That’n we use for Sunday school an’ prayer meetin’.”
In the sanctuary, he informs us he has to “fetch his wife” for church, and heads on out the door.
“Can you believe this old place?” I mumble.
“Is there even a piano, or…or anything to play for worship?” Stacy stares around at the room in question. Against the far wall, an ancient up-right piano leans on its shaky legs, a rickety homemade bench in front of it presenting the only place for the unfortunate instrument player to perch. She approaches the piano slowly, her mouth turned down in disappointment.
“I can’t get over the shear desolation outside” I comment. “I’ve never seen a strip mining community before; there isn’t a single blade of grass growing on any of the hills around here. Bare red dirt everywhere!”
My best friend, and the person who arranged this experience, shakes his head at our observations.
“I told you guys it was poor. What did you expect? These people barely have two nickels to rub together. Some churches up here don’t even have a building, let alone a piano, and, besides that, it’s fairly well tuned.”
Too bad Stacy proves him wrong with the C chord she fingers. She looks at him and laughs.
“Well, anyhow, we better get our stuff together. The service is supposed to start in fifteen minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes? Where’re the people, Phil?” I ask.
“They’ll be here, don’t worry. They don’t waste time standing around talking; they hit the door about two minutes before service starts.”
This time, he’s right. As we finish up our preparations, running children, smiling adults, and even a mangy puppy, suddenly surround us. The mother of the puppy’s owner smacks her son on his arm and instructs him to “git that nasty ‘ol dawg outa here. This’s God’s house, Benny.” I glance around and wonder if He would lay claim to her last statement.
The people excitedly pump our hands in welcome, and tell us how happy they are to have college students willing to fill in while they look for a new pastor. Their greetings warm my heart and give me, for the first time since we arrived, a feeling that maybe God IS directing this day.
I sit next to several children on the first row; their grins light up their smudged faces when they look at me. We begin the service with a rousing hymn, and the church people happily leap to their feet and begin enthusiastically clapping and praising, oblivious to the cacophonous piano.
Phil delivers his sermon in a simple, straightforward manner, and I’m impressed with his ability to reach the hearts of these isolated Christians. Their eyes are glued to his, and they listen with respect and understanding, punctuating his words with vigorous “Amens” and “Preach it, brother”.
I came today, after many weeks of begging on Phil’s part, with a pious spirit. I patted myself on my spiritual back for sacrificing my Sunday to help these poor, backward Christians have an encouraging service so they could resume their impoverished lives on Monday. In my heart, God is showing me that He is their Encourager. His Word and grace have already filled their spirits with riches my own soul lacks today.
My eyes fill with tears as I watch their whole-hearted worship.
Suddenly, Benny turns to me and asks, “Ain’t this doggone fun?” He wipes his runny nose with his sleeve, and I return his grin.
“Yes, it is, Benny” I laugh.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:1-3, The Holy Bible, New International Version
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