I was raised in a rural Southern Baptist Church when the only air conditioning in the summer were hand held fans with pictures of Jesus on one side and funeral parlor advertisements on the other. There was plenty of hellfire and brimstone on Sunday mornings, Prayer Meetin’ on Thursday nights, and lots of hymns sung with gusto both on and off key. A huge oil painting of Jesus sitting in a meadow with his flock of sheep hung behind the pulpit. I have stared into that painting more times than I could count. The folks in that church were sincere and sweet. I felt loved there and that is a powerful thing. It was the best ingredient for Homecoming Sunday when everybody brought their finest home cooked dish, which was spread out on a huge table crudely constructed amongst some old oaks but graciously shaded by these same trees. To be sure there would be a rousing sermon prior to the meal and then a blessing for the food that included the cooks along with a heaping helping of general praise and likely a little something for the sinners as well. The blessing always turned into a prayer that usually wound on a bit too long for us kids who sneaked peeks at the bowls and dishes covered with towels or aluminum foil – our mouths watering in anticipation. My favorites were fried chicken and deviled eggs. Everybody had their own rendition and it was delicious fun to taste the varieties. Besides fried chicken there would also be pork, beef and chicken done every whichaway from fried to baked to roasted to barbecued and sometimes smothered in somebody’s famous sauce. There were plenty of things I didn’t care for and if they’d been on the table at home I’d have been obliged to eat them but here I was my own captain and steered clear of them. You could count on lots of vegetables from local harvests – sweet potatoes either baked or candied, creamy whipped potatoes, boiled potatoes floating in butter, beans and peas of every variety cooked in fatback or stirred up into a grand casserole, turnips greens and collards with a bit of ham hidden among the tender cooked leaves, corn on and off the cob and sometimes made into pudding, tomatoes, cucumbers, homemade pickles both sweet and sour and maybe an occasional healthy salad. And, of course, there were loads of desserts – all sorts of pies – pecan, custard, lemon meringue, chocolate, apple, peach – and, Lordy! the cakes – coconut, pineapple, German chocolate, chocolate cream, strawberry, some layered high and others in baking dishes – and always yummy fruit cobblers and sometimes somebody churned ice cream but that never lasted long. Everyone ate their fill and then some. And there was always plenty.
Afterwards the adults sat around talking while the kids played tag or walked through the graveyard – which was something I particularly liked to do. I visited relatives and friends who were resting there. And paid respects to those I didn’t know but whose story I did – like the little boy who was run over and killed by his granddaddy. His sweet baby face immortalized on the small tombstone with lilies carved on top and hopes that he would be an angel engraved in the stone. I knew that little boy’s granddaddy – a quiet man with the saddest face I’d ever seen. His grief carried with him everywhere. And the small marker that denoted the resting place of a tiny baby who had lived only one day. I knew his parents and the sisters that had come after him. They all seemed happy but I always felt that the mama had a little hole in her heart for her dead baby.
When some people were going back for another slice of cake or pie and the women were clearing away the dishes and packing their baskets with empty bowls and limp towels familiar notes from the old upright piano would float out the windows of the church. The music flowed under the oaks and over the front walk and across the cemetery calling us home to what we called a Hymn Sing. Various musical groups from the area were always invited to participate and the afternoon turned into a music festival. Quartets, trios, duets and family groups of all sizes shared their talents. The chords of old familiar songs like Amazing Grace, His Eye is on the Sparrow, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, How Great Thou Art, In the Sweet Bye and Bye, and Shall We Gather At the River brought fresh joy and an old comfort that felt like being coved by your grandmother’s softest quilt. The Old Rugged Cross was my Grampa’s favorite and no matter how many years he’d been gone from this earth the sweet sound of it brought such a clutch of memory and longing to my heart I could not help but cry. I suppose that’s what Homecoming Sunday was all about anyway – gathering with those you love, filling their bellies with food, their souls with music, and remembering those lost to us. As a young girl growing up at the Tabernacle Homecoming was a hallowed day. As a grown woman in her seventh decade the memory of it remains sacred still. However, those days are long ago and faraway. The church building has been redone beautifully but it doesn’t reflect the sanctuary that was so familiar to me. Of course, there is central air these days. A nice baptistery has replaced the painting of Jesus and his sheep. The old picnic grounds are gone – replaced with a spacious dining hall and modern kitchen. I visit there on occasion – usually funerals are the reason. I see some familiar faces but mostly those old folks who grew me up and loved me so well have gone on. Some of them reside now in the Tabernacle cemetery, which is at least twice the size it was in my youth. Some of those folks go to church elsewhere or not at all. And some have passed out of my knowing and remain only in my memory. Am I left to echo Thomas Wolfe’s refrain: “you can’t go home again” or John Newton’s: “….and grace will lead me home”?