The year was 1959; I was a freshman at Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville, Arkansas. I was majoring in voice, in the music department (the only freshman in that major — Mom talked me into it, but that’s another story). A fellow student was the pastor at a rural Baptist church several miles from campus. (Clarifying that it was a Baptist church is almost unnecessary; of church-going people in Arkansas, Baptists are the clear majority.) Did I say rural? I’m talking dirt roads, miles from the nearest paved road, sitting in a beautiful hideaway in the Ozark foothills. No stained glass windows, no steeple, no organ, no carpet, no paint, no indoor bathroom. Just a one-room building of cement blocks with a potbelly stove in the center of the room and several rows of folding chairs and a small podium, but in every way of substance this was a church.
My friend, the pastor, had asked me to lead the singing and to teach Sunday school to the younger teenagers. Struggling to find my social way at college, I was glad to have this opportunity to be involved with others and to share whatever I knew. That first Sunday I wore my only suit, carrying my Bible, as he drove us to the church. Confidence filled me. After all, I was from the big city, Little Rock, and was a college student. What didn’t I know? I would soon learn.
As we arrived at the church, I quickly noticed I was the only one in a suit: men were in bib overalls or shirt and jeans; women were in simple cotton dresses, probably homemade. There were a few pickup trucks, but most people had walked to church. The teenagers were in similar attire. I had entered a world previously unknown to me. In that moment, I realized that a teaching event was happening and that I was the student. I had come with the belief that I could teach them, but I was going to learn more than they. What I immediately noticed and admired were their enthusiasm, their strength, and their commitment to their beliefs. These people were poorer, financially, than any people I had ever known, yet they faced life daily with happiness. I had much to learn.
That first Sunday I struggled with the singing, as there were few songbooks and many didn’t know the words. Despite that, their voices rang loudly through the forest and they displayed both patience and acceptance with this young college kid in his suit. In Sunday school I was less successful; the younger teenagers looked to me for a wisdom I did not have. I would do better the next week. That became my challenge.
On following Sundays, I made sure to have photocopies of a few songs available to aid in the singing and I lowered the bar on what I could confidently share with the teenagers. Life began to improve. And I abandoned wearing my suit. No longer the expert to teach them, I now focused on helping them in smaller ways. A lesson to me was that I was doing more for them by teaching less.
Christmas was to be a special service and was on a Friday that year. With no classes and the semester at end, I had planned to go home, but by now I was drawn to these people who had accepted me into their lives. I arrived early that morning, not knowing what to expect. What I saw was a church alive and involved. In a corner stood a small tree on which children were busy hanging their paper chains and other handmade ornaments, probably made in school or at home. Their chatter and laughter were infectious. The men had assembled several long planks across a number of chairs to form a makeshift table. On the table was a rich assortment of food to share, following the service: not fancy but plentiful.
There was no need for hymn books; they knew the words to their favorite Christmas songs. I had only planned on singing three songs in that Christmas morning service, but we eventually sang seven or eight, all from the heart. Had I gone home, I know the service there would have been more formal, more reverent, with organ accompaniment and a robed choir — yet I would have missed the love and caring and spirit of this small church. I had made the right decision; memories of that service would last a lifetime.
Christmas day was my last day at that church. I would never see them again, yet they are with me still. My life took a new direction in 1960, but that is another story. Their homes or farms I never saw, but I can envision their lives were sparse. The church was a rock in their lives and I was blessed to have a small part there. Much of what I learned there took many years to realize: the communal spirit that binds people together; the absence of envy that is possible when people have higher values; the ability to accept new members on faith and trust without prejudice. I had come to teach, yet it was I who became the student.
Christmas is almost here and I have every confidence that the little church in the Ozarks is alive and well. Do they remember me? No, but I will always remember them. I am a better person for the experience.