Many small rural churches hosted Valentine/Sweetheart events during February. Jackie and I were invited to several and attended the one at Arbor Springs Baptist Church in Reform, Ala.

It was a carry-in dinner with all of the wonderful foods for which Arbor Springs is justly famous. Greg had prepared his gourmet deer tenderloin. Ms. Betty had prepared a heaping platter of the squash fritter cakes, which I have come to love. And Ms. Susie, having learned how I crave cornbread salad, had a big bowl ready. It was toward the end of the food line, so I had not really left enough room for as much of it as I wanted. However, some of it survived the first trips down the serving line, so I specialized on it when I made my second trip. On the first I had loaded up on Ms. Polly’s wonderful chicken and dressing. This is only a fraction of the good food served, the items which I selected, based on my many good experiences eating in that welcoming church.

Ms. Polly, like many of the other women of the church, was beautifully dressed in a red jacket. This was the 59th Valentine’s Day for her and Mr. Cleo. For years she provided day care for young children in her home and has a host of real and “adopted” grandchildren and great grands.

Unlike God’s other creatures, the males that day, as on most, were pretty drab. Cleo was wearing a dark blue checked sports shirt.

We ate with the pastor and his family. He was celebrating his fifth year in ministry. Earlier in the day his wife, Emily, had sung the old song that is identified with the Happy Goodman Family, “I couldn’t have made this journey without you.” Brother Barry was on crutches due to having had surgery to repair the ligament in his right knee a few days earlier. It has been a mixed year for him and Emily. Both have been hospitalized. So, the song stirred deep emotions for us all. Barry and I topped off the meal with Aunt Ruth’s excellent German chocolate cake.

Seated a couple of tables away was the Kelly clan. This year promises to be a special one for them. Grandson Jeremy was there with his fiancée. They will marry in June. God had been at work in his life. After a time of youthful rebellion, he has settled down. He is taking nurse’s training at the University of Alabama. He has surrendered to preach and has been supplying pulpits around and speaking to youth groups. Daughter Patricia has reconnected with her sweetheart from high-school days more than two decades ago. Then, one was from Reform and the other from Gordo, very competitive towns just eight miles apart. Neither was willing to move to the other’s town, and no alternative was available. She and David plan to finally marry this summer. They will live in Gordo, David’s town.

Nearby were two older men whom I have come to know and appreciate. Both have been faithful workers in Arbor Springs and in the association. The wives of both have died in recent years from cancer. I know that their minds were dealing with memories which brought them joy and with others that reminded them of their great loss as we ate. Roosevelt’s pain may have been less than Billy’s because he is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

After the meal we were entertained by Speed’s Mill a new bluegrass band in our area. They were excellent.

In the days before Valentine’s I had been reading Ann Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. In this autobiographic book she shares many things about her life and struggles, including the story of how she came to faith in Jesus Christ as her savior. She lives in the San Francisco area. On Sunday she would go to a flea market near her home. Across the street stood a decaying Presbyterian church with a small and old congregation. She could hear the congregation singing hymns that she remembered from her childhood.

For months she would go and stand in the doorway so that she could hear the music better. But she refused to go in and sit through the time of preaching although she was often invited to do so.
Finally, she did stay. She found herself wrapped in the love of the congregation, a love like she had searched for all of her life. She yielded her life to Jesus and became a part of the church. Across the next two decades the church ministered to her though battles with addictions, pregnancy outside of marriage and the challenges of being a single parent.

Music, ministry, love and nourishment–these are the things that many small churches excel at. There are many like Ann Lamott, who are drawn by the music and experience unselfish, unconditional and affirming love of a small church. And then Jesus calls upon them to become a part of this loving fellowship. It is that way at Arbor Springs.

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

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