As a Southern woman raised in the Church of Christ, a lot of people believe that I am rigid -- believing that I am "saved" and you are not. I have heard all of my life that "those Church of Christ folks think that they are the only ones going to heaven" but I have never been taught that -- it has never even been implied to me. I even attended a Church of Christ private school from the age of 4 through the 8th grade and I never heard it there either. I was taught what it took to get to heaven based on the scriptures, no more, no less. Prejudices about other faiths was not part of the curriculum.
I grew up as a bonified member of the Central Church of Christ in Huntsville, AL and I loved it there. I do not know what others who grew up in the church went through, but for me, it was a blast. I loved the people and the building and the quaint downtown atmosphere. I was baptised there and on a cool, sunny, Saturday in October 1998, I was married there. A lot of this will not make sense to you unless you also attended church and some of this will not make sense unless you attended Central.
We were not an affluent church, full of monetary wealth. No, the riches of Central lay in the hearts of its members. As a young child, I worked hard in Sunday School to impress David and Marlene Thomason, Tim and Jimi Johnson, and even Marrietta Neiland (even though she never taught me personally, she was like the "Matriarch" of Central's youth). I opened my heart, sharpened my wit, and delved into more serious theological questions with Mike and Lora Porter, David and Laura Bell, and Dorthea Thompson as a teen. I learned to respect my elders -- Henry Bragg, Clyde Jones, Richard Brown, D.O. Matthews, J.D. Jones, and countless others. I wrote a letter to the elders when I was about 12 asking to be moved into the teen group early because I felt I was "much more mature" than the kids in my current class. I have no idea what it said, I would love to read it now for a laugh, but it worked, (much to my older sisters chagrin who had hoped to avoid me encroaching on her territory for at least 2 more years). I do not know if I impressed them with the words in the letter, or simply by the act of writing it.
I do not remember how old I was, maybe 8 or 9, but I still remember a lesson that J.D Jones taught about singing. What I remember about it is this: Singing is important. It is as important as praying and sitting still and listening to the sermon. He told us that it was important to not have instruments crowding out our voices as we lifted them in praise to God. And he told us to breathe which I thought was a little unnecessary until he explained further. We shouldn't all breathe at once so that a song sounded like this: "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound (GASP) That saved a wretch like me! (GASP)..." It is an odd lesson to have stuck with me for so long, but it has, and I still try to practice the intermittent breathing when I sing at church now. We had no organ, no piano, no bass guitar or drums, but on a good Sunday with Ed Smith or Gerry Binford leading the singing you would never miss them. We sang, we clapped, we stomped our feet to the rhythms of "In My Father's House" and "Amen" until I thought that we would raise the roof or at least blow the doors from their hinges. We had an inner-city ministry, a class for divorcees, a jail ministry, a class for single parents, and 2 college ministries -- one at UAH and one at A & M. On any given Sunday, you could look out at the congregation and see people from as many as 4 or 5 races and 10 or 12 countries all side by side smiling right back at you. We had no qualms about race that so many churches in the South do even today.
The building was old (still is) but it was my playground every Sunday and Wednesday night. I would hold onto the brown metal poles that stretched to the ceiling as part of the staircase and swing from the 3rd or 4th or 5th step while holding onto the bottom pole in an impressive display of upper body strength that would make any stripper proud. I swung like a monkey on the silver painted poles that barricaded the parking lot across the street with my long brown hair dragging through the dirt. I begged every Wednesday night to walk to Gorin's for a waffle cone after church and was usually told no. I took great care in my hard soled Sunday shoes to pop as many seeds that fell from the huge tree out front. That tree is gone now. Its huge roots were buckling the concrete and its towering branches stretched high over the church roof. I wriggled in my seat as the invitation song, the announcements, and the prayer were concluded so that I could bound from the pew and run to the gym (we called it "The Family Life Center," but it was a gym). I would play while my mom and dad visited (or fellowshipped), and then I would whine when it was finally time to leave. I helped decorated that gym for the Harvest Banquet every year, and hosted several Parent Appreciation Dinners there as a teen. Some of my fondest memories are of the Halloween parties that they used to have there -- popcorn, Abbot & Costello, and costume contests. I won the year that I made a killer robot costume out of an old dryer box, silver spray paint, and light bright pegs.
For those of you not raised in the church, this might sound odd, but when you are raised in the Lord, surrounded on all sides by Him, even before you choose to be baptised, you have taken Him on like a reflection from those around you. I always knew that I would choose a life with Christ, and at a weekend teen retreat at Henry and Melba Bragg's Elk River cabin, I decided it was time. I was 14, and I was baptised by Clyde Jones at Central the Sunday morning after we got back with my parents and grandparents looking on. It was a good day. I didn't know it at the time, but the first real attack on my faith was just a few months away in the form of "The Boston Movement" where I saw our congregation that was bursting at the seams one Sunday go to a meager gathering of the faithful just a few weeks later. Although I have prayed alot about forgiving those responsible, I will never get over the effect that it had on me. It was my first experience with church "politics" (for lack of a more universally understood word), and in many ways it left me cynical. I am certain that the church had its problems before that, but I was oblivious to them. Sometimes, growing up sucks.
I know that I have romanticized the building, the grounds, and even the people in my head, but they are still the standard by which I judge other congregations. Central, in all its glory, warts and all, is "Home." There will never be another church that I can walk through and feel so at ease, so comfortable, like I belong. The people who taught my Sunday school classes, now teach my kids when we go home to visit. Ed and Gerry still raise the roof with the singing. Kids still swing on that banister. It is a constant comfort to me to know that it is there -- growing, flourishing, changing, yet always the same.