The season of rural church homecomings arrived across the South with the first Sunday in May. Cemeteries are spruced up, church houses and grounds are cleaned up. New carpets are installed, and steeples and church signs are improved.

The date for an annual church homecoming was almost always set a generation or two ago, and seldom is it changed. On the first Sunday of May in Pickens County, Ala., Mineral Springs and Fellowship held their homecomings. On the second Sunday, folks gathered at Old Corrs and Arbor Springs. On the third, folks will attend homecomings at Flatwoods, Hebron and Friendship. Liberty has May’s fourth Sunday all to itself. Stansel will wait until June 30 in order to use the new fellowship hall. And on and on it will go through the summer and fall.

The schedule for these events is almost standardized—music, message, meal, fellowship, a casual stroll in the cemetery, and more music. The music in the morning typically features church members and/or a local group in the Southern Gospel tradition. Sometimes the “master of ceremonies” will call on a congregant to lead a gospel song, a tradition born in the 1920s when most communities hosted a singing school or “convention” during the summertime.

The sermon may be brought by the pastor, a beloved former pastor, or a “son” of the congregation called into ministry who pastors elsewhere. Message themes vary. Some talk about biblical homecomings, as with the case of Jacob; others preach about heaven and the great homecoming there.

Observing the congregation at a homecoming is a social scientist’s delight. Visitors struggle with how to conduct themselves. Usually, some of these folks are not “church broke,” and they are uncomfortable. Many struggle to remember a name or “place” a familiar face.

The fellowship meal is always something to behold. The women of the church have spent days preparing dishes for which they are justly famous, and the bounty on the serving tables is beyond description.  Historically, the meal is served outside under shade trees. The evolution from wooden tables, to concrete tables, to sheds sheltering concrete tables, to fellowship halls and indoor eating speaks of the ingenuity, cultural diffusion and growing prosperity of the rural South.

Wherever the meal is served, little knots of people, often extended families or gender/age cohorts, will cluster and eat together, visiting all the while. Serious eaters will excuse themselves and make a second, third, or even fourth run along the serving table. Others will simply graze up and down the length of the table and find a place to sit and visit only when full.

Many in attendance will have kinfolk buried in the cemetery. Singly or in small family groups, they will seek out the graves of ancestors, ancient and recent. They will share family history with children, most of whom won’t pay attention. Good memories will be shared. Tears will be shed. Prayers will be silently uttered.

Back in the church house, some of the attendees will gather, and others who don’t care for Southern Gospel will find an excuse to head back home. A quartet, trio or family of singers will perform for about 30 minutes, take a rest (and an offering) and conclude with another performance. By then—about 3 p.m.—the congregation will have thinned even more, and the program for the day comes to an end.

Members will say goodbyes and exchange hugs with the remaining visitors. Then they will complement one another on the success of this year’s homecoming. They will gather up the trash and uneaten food, and straighten up the church and grounds. Then they will head home for a well-deserved nap.

Place was important to the Israelites, as we find in the biblical account. It is still so for rural folk in the American South. Homecomings, in part, give expression to the importance of place, and with it family and faith.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.

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