Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780

 

March 28, 2000

Homecoming

By Bailey Thomson

At the turn of the century, an Englishman named Sir William Archer toured the former Confederacy and declared that the South was the most simply and sincerely religious country he had ever seen. Religion was a large factor in Southerners’ lives and God was real and personal to them.        

Our region's great affinity for old-time religion endures. Faith has taken new forms and further divided along theological fault lines, but its power remains. 

Southerners often express this visceral attachment to religion by gathering each year for homecomings at small rural churches where their ancestors lay buried. Such occasions permit extended families, friends and former neighbors to visit and marvel at how swiftly time passes.

My mother’s people are among those who practice this religious rite. They come home on the first Sunday of every May to the Bethabara Baptist Church in Fayette County. My great grandfather, who was wounded as a Confederate private at Murphreesboro, lies buried in the church’s graveyard next to my great-grandmother. Graves of kinsmen fan out across the grassy grounds.   

Each family unit brings fried chicken, garden vegetables, pies and other food to be eaten on long, rough tables under oak trees next to the church. It is a time for hugging distant cousins and introducing timid offspring to a community now extended across many states but still faintly connected by blood and tradition.

Robert Drake, a professor at Vanderbilt, wrote a short story about such an event.  He titled it "Amazing Grace.” The story captures the moment in a Southern child's life when he discovers his place among the faithful. The boy wants to attend the picture show. Instead, his parents insist that he go with them to a church homecoming. A distant female relative with buckteeth and dyed hair pushes what she calls "cormel" cake into the boy’s overflowing plate. He is embarrassed by his country kin. Later in the meetinghouse, however, the sullen child notices tears in his father's eyes as the parent drinks deeply from the emotions of the singing and preaching. Suddenly, the child understands, without anyone telling him, why his father weeps.

As a child, I often attended such reunions with my mother at Bethabara, and her people would kiss me and exclaim how much I had grown. Their rustic customs made me as uncomfortable as was the boy in Drake’s story.

We always ate with my grandparents, who by this time lived in Fayette, about fifteen miles from Bethabara. After dinner, I would sit in the church with my grandfather, who was a retired farmer and Baptist preacher. The song leaders would move their hands up and down to keep the congregation on beat, as if the ringing piano chords were not enough.

At some point, the minister would invite my grandfather to speak. I can see him even now, with the early afternoon sun beaming in from the window behind him, as he preached of God’s love and forgiveness.

Now as a middle-aged man, I have begun attending the reunions again. The old church is gone, replaced by a newer, brick building. And the old people have passed on, too. But there is still a crowd there every year, and most of the people are kin to me one way or another. Many of them drive to the church from Birmingham, Tuscaloosa or some other city, where they have more comfortable lives that what they or their forebears knew in the old days. But we maintain this common bond, as if the ancestors out in the cemetery refuse to let us go.

I want these beloved people to meet and know my daughter, who is almost 16 and quite sophisticated in the ways of city life. No, I don’t expect her to enjoy homecomings any more than I did. But in time I believe she will come to appreciate them. Who knows? She may even write about them one day.

An old hymn exhorts us to “Come home, come home…” I hope never to be so far away again that I can’t hear that plaintive call to remember who I am and from whence I came.

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