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Country Church Homecoming

I have many fond memories from my childhood of the Homecomings at the Cross Roads Missionary Baptist Church which were usually held around Memorial Day. I grew up in the West Robbins Community of Scott County, Tennessee during the 1950's and 60's. Sometimes this event was also called "dinner on the ground" or "all day singing" with dinner on the ground. Many churches back then had a Homecoming and many still do today. This tradition of rural churches in the South having a Homecoming once a year goes back many, many years. I wanted to share with you some of my wonderful memories.
Our little church in West Robbins at that time did not have a church homecoming. The church in the Cross Roads Community a few miles down the road did. It was very common for families from different communities to attend a homecoming at another church. I know my family and many others in West Robbins looked very forward for the church in Cross Roads to hold their yearly homecoming. Some families would attend their own Sunday morning church services and others would go to Cross Roads for Sunday School. Most visitors would always be at the Cross Road's church between eleven and twelve o'clock. I also remember some families that moved up North to find work would come back home to visit during this time. It was a chance for them to see many family and friends at one time.
My family always attended Sunday School at Cross Roads on Homecoming Day. At exactly ten o'clock someone would ring the church bell. The rope to the church bell was located by the door. It was wrapped around a long nail to hold it in place. Children would always love to be one to ring the bell. They would take the rope in both hands and pull downward and then let the rope go back up. After ringing the bell several times there would always be an adult saying to the child, "That's enough ringin'!"
To me it seemed the Sunday School part did not last as long as usual and the preaching would began early. There were always several visiting preachers. The pastor of the church would signal that Sunday School was over. The pastor of the Cross Roads Missionary Baptist Church during these years was Rev. Earl Ellis. A minister who was well known in Scott County. He was a very tall, slim man and knew the Bible well. He would open the service up with a few words welcoming everyone there. Members of the church choir would make their way up on stage behind the pulpit. Usually Rev. Bud Cross, Brother George York or Brother Junior Lewallen would pick a song out of the church song book and announce to the congregation the title and page number. You could hear the rustling of the pages being turned quickly to find the song. One person would start the song and by the time of the second word the whole church was singing. I have to say small, country churches were blessed with great voices! Favorites like "I'll Fly Away" and "Victory In Jesus" and several others vibrated the walls of the little, wooden church. Everyone in the church would stand while singing and the singing was tremendously enjoyed by all. Being warm weather the windows would gradually be raised by someone sitting the closest to the window. Each window had a long stick laying in the window sill. The window would be held up by this stick. I'm sure our singing could be heard through the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Once the singing would end the pastor would read a few scriptures. With the Holy Spirit guiding him he would preach a sermon. Most of the preachers in the small, country churches were very animated. Rev. Earl Ellis was one of my favorite preachers. As the sermon would progress he would get louder and talk faster. He would move back and forth as he preached holding his Bible in his left hand and moving his right arm. I will never forget the intensity of his preaching. People would lean forward so as not to miss one single word he was saying. His face would light up in a wondrous smile as he would glance around the church. Every few minutes there would be several, loud "Amens" from the other ministers, deacons and from the congregation.
Most churches I attended while growing up started pretty much the same way. There were never any printed schedules for the way the service would be conducted. The churches strongly felt the services should be led by the Holy Spirit. Usually after the sermon Rev. Ellis would ask the congregation to come forward for prayer. He would ask if there were any prayer request. Different people would speak up and give their request. The pastor would then ask everyone to join him in prayer. The people standing in the front of the church would get down on their knees and pray. Some would sit on the church benches and bow their heads or lean forward and place their heads and arms on the bench in front of them. Rev. Ellis would start the prayer and then everyone would pray. Most people prayed out loud with each praying their own special prayer. The voices would rise up together and flow out to the church yard. When the last voice praying was silent the pastor would say Amen.
Rev. Ellis would ask the visiting preachers if they felt led to say anything. Sometimes one or two would stand up and testify. Usually there would be one minister felt led to preach. Some of the preachers I remember back then were Carlie Lewallen, Alonzo Hamby, Charles Smithers, Raymond Webb, Cordell Reagan, Carl Jeffers, Jerry Zachary, and of course the two I have already mention, Earl Ellis and Bud Cross. There were many more wonderful preachers I knew back then but at the moment their names elude my memory.
Around twelve o'clock the pastor would stand behind the pulpit and announce it was time for dinner on the ground. He would ask everyone to remain after dinner for the special singing and more preaching. The congregation would commence to filing from the pews and heading for the door. There would be a constant sound of many voices speaking at the same time. People would greet each other with handshakes, hugs and pats on the back. This was a time for people to visit each other. Old friends would see each other for the first time after weeks, months and sometimes years. It was a time for good food and good fellowship.
Each family would head to their cars or pick up trucks. Parents and children would start carrying boxes, bowls, pots, etc. to the tables under the large, shade trees on the side of the church. The tables were placed there earlier by the men and boys. The tables were handmade saw horses lined up in a row. Planks of lumber were placed on the saw horses to form a long, narrow table. Each family which brought food would also have a table cloth to spread over the planks where they would place their food. The men would wander off and stand around talking. We children would run off to play. Mothers would tell their children not to get dirty. The ladies and young girls would spread out their table cloths and begin to place the food on the table. Platters of food were placed here and there. Big spoons would be placed in all the bowls and kettles. Homemade pies and cakes were unwrapped. Large, glass jars of kool-aid, tea and water were opened and paper cups were placed close by. Families would bring piles of paper plates, spoons and forks. By the time the ladies were through there would not be one empty space on the long table. A bountiful feast for sure! By this time everyone was hungry and moving closer to the food. The pastor would ask everyone to be silent and bow their heads for prayer. One thing I always remember the preacher saying in his prayer among other words was for God to bless the food and to bless the hands that prepared it. He would end the prayer with Amen followed by the people saying Amen in unison.
The tables were piled high with delicious food and the pleasant aroma would fill the air. Platter's of finger-licking, fried chicken and good country ham made your mouth water. Pot's of chicken and dumplings, bowls of potato salad, cole slaw and plates of deviled eggs were placed here and there. Kettles of fresh, green beans seasoned with fat back with new potato's and of course pone's of cornbread adorned the tables along with homemade biscuits. Someone would always have a pot of pinto beans and a pan of greens from their garden and wild greens from the woods wilted from pouring hot grease over them. Green onions were abundant and some would be placed in glasses of water to keep them fresh. Huge plates of sliced tomato's and cucumbers were everywhere along with pyramids of corn on the cob. Golden, fried, green tomato's were a special treat. Jar's of homemade pickles, jellies and jams were spread out. Most of the ladies would bring their special desserts. Homemade apple, pumpkin, chess, pecan pies just to name a few. Cakes of every description were on hand. Bowl's of banana pudding and pan's of homemade apple, peach and blackberry cobblers were a treat.
One lady, Eva Lowe, would always bring her famous fried, apple pies. One year I know she made fifty of these delicious treats. I was at her home in West Robbins visiting her husband Walter a day before the Homecoming. I will never forget the smell coming from Eva's kitchen. Walter and I walked through the kitchen to go to the back porch. Eva with her apron on was rolling dough out on the table with a large wooden rolling pin. On her old, wood stove there were at least three, cast iron skillets sizzling with these wonderful, apple creations. I remember many of us children would be the first in line at Eva's table at the Homecoming. We knew her fried, apple pies would disappear quickly!
Everyone would begin serving themselves. People would be complementing the ladies on their food. Mother's with little children would fix them a plate. Some of the ladies would spread out quilts on the ground under the tall, shade trees. Men, boys and some girls would just sit on the ground holding their plates. Some would retreat to the porch of the church and others would sit on pickup truck beds. Young couples courting would be a short distance from everyone eating together. The sound of voices from the crowd would not completely cease but while everyone was eating it sure did decline.
Many men and some of the children would go back and have seconds. Once everyone had their fill and the dinner was over the women would pack up their leftovers, dishes and clean off the tables. Small groups of men would be standing together talking, smoking and chewing tobacco. Back then smoking was not frowned on as it is today. Most smokers would have store bought cigarettes. While some of the older men would pull out their Prince Albert can, Country Gentlemen bag or Bugler, pack of papers and commence to "roll-your-own" cigarettes. Taking a wooden match out of a little box they would strike the match sometimes on their pants leg and light their cigarette. I was always in awe as I watched them do this.
Some of the people after eating would walk to the graveyard located on a hill behind the church. Some would place flowers on the graves. Others would walk around the cemetery looking at the flowers that were placed on the graves that morning or the day before. Back then many people still referred to Memorial Day as Decoration Day. My mother told me most people way back would call it Decoration Day. She also told how back then families would make their own flowers usually out of different color, crepe paper. Sometimes they would dip the flowers in melted wax to mantain their shape. They would create beautiful, flower arrangements weeks in advance for Decoration Day to be placed on the graves of their loved ones.
People would gradually make their way back into the church. Pastor Ellis would get up and thank the ladies on how good all the food was. He would also say a few words on God's blessings. It was now time for the special singing. Many singers from around the area would attend the Cross Roads Homecoming. I remember singers from the communities of Brimstone, Glenmary, Honeycreek, Mountain View, Robbins, Elgin, Wolf Creek, West Robbins, Black Creek, Low Gap, New River and others. Some came as far away as Morgan and Fentress Counties. Many brought guitars and other instruments. Some would play the church piano. There would be old time favorites along with some of the newer songs. I became one of these singers as a young teenager. I would play my old guitar and sing two or three songs. I will never forget the time I was playing my guitar and singing to the top of my lungs when one of my strings broke. Even though it was hard to play I did manage to finish the song. The reason I am mentioning this is because after the service ended a very, old man came up to me and placed a ten dollar bill into my hand and told me to buy me a new set of strings. I tried to get the gentlemen to take the money back but he insisted on me keeping it. He patted my shoulder and told me how much he enjoyed my singing and playing. He also said to always sing for the Lord. He turned around and walked away. He was not a member of the church and I never knew who he was and never saw the man again.
The wonderful singing, preaching, praying, testifying and sometimes shoutin' in the spirit from some of the ladies would continue until about four in the afternoon. Rev. Earl Ellis would close the service with the choir singing a song and a fellowship handshake followed by a prayer. Families would make the journey to their homes. They would rest and have a little supper and many would then attend the evening service at their respective churches. Many churches today in the South continue this fine tradition we call, "Homecoming". Each year I attended the Homecoming at the Cross Roads Missionary Baptist Church while growing up is an experience I have always treasured and I always will.

Dan Gibson, author
Copyright 2005

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