March 28, 2000
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
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
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.