The first church I ever knew was my home church, New Hope Baptist Church in Wauchula, Florida. My earliest memories were of my Aunt Faye feeding us cookies and Kool-Aid in Sunday School. Wise woman that she was, she laced our memories of church with sugar, making a grace-filled chemical bond in our brains.
My friends were all in that class: Mark White, Mark Lambert, Teresa Weeks, Audrey Graham and Denise Grimsley. We learned the stories of the Bible from pictures sent from Nashville. After the Bible stories, we got to work on puzzles or played with Play-Doh, a marvelous invention, unless your name was Clay. Early on I was tagged as "Clay-Doh." Personality tests I have taken through the years say I am very flexible when it comes to ideas. I trace that trait back to my childhood nickname.
After Sunday School, we would go to church. There was no such thing as "Children's Church" in those days. When the hymn books opened, we were supposed to stand and sing, though none of us could read. For some reason, the song leader would call out "Let's sing verses 1, 2 and 4." I never sang the third verse of a hymn until I went to college.
When the preacher got up to preach, we were expected to be quiet. It's hard to be quiet when you are only 4 or 5. Once, Mark White and I were looking through a Bible and came upon a picture of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Isaac was naked, except for a strategically placed sheet. Five-year-old boys find naked people funny. We started to giggle. We knew it was wrong to giggle in church, but some things make giggles grow. We laughed out loud, and I received from my mother a pinch that would flatten barbed wire. My mother had not read Dr. Spock's theories on child punishment. Her pinch stopped my giggles. In the front yard of the church, in full view of the church body, I received one of the strongest "whippings" of my life. I have never laughed at a picture of a mostly naked man in church since.
In those days we had church on Sunday nights, to prove we were more pious than the Methodists and Presbyterians. Backsliders would stay home and watch "Bonanza" or "The Ed Sullivan Show." But Sunday nights were usually better than Sunday mornings, because I would get to sit next to Mama Cat, who always had some candy in her purse for bored little boys. What was even better was after church when the adults would stand around and talk. We kids would play tag (this was before smartphones took away childhood). I was chasing Harold Lambert one night and swallowed a stink bug. I went to tell Mama, and she told me, "Don't you dare throw up." It was a threat of self-preservation - she had a weak stomach. There was something in her voice that told me it was better to digest than expel. I've heard about people stranded on deserted islands eating bugs to survive. If I am ever on a deserted island and bugs are my only option, I will die. One bug was enough for a lifetime.
Childhood does not last forever. When I was a teenager, New Hope had a youth Sunday. The youth led the service, and I was the preacher. It takes a lot of grace for aunts and uncles to listen to a 16-year-old berate them about their sins. I didn't know it at the time, but the older you get, the more options for sin you have.
One summer, New Hope let me be a summer intern to work with the youth. I wasn't very good at it, but they gave that most precious gift, the gift of experience. Experts say you need 10,000 hours of doing something before you get good at it. My first hours of teaching Sunday School, preaching, even leading the singing (I would make everyone sing the third verse), happened at New Hope.
When the time came for me to be ordained as a Minister of the Gospel, it was New Hope that laid hands on me and whispered blessings in my ears. My brother and sister got married at New Hope. My father, mother and stepfather had their funerals at New Hope. There are 12 stained glass windows given in honor or memory of folks. I am kin to most of them.
Across the road from church is the cemetery. My father, mother, grandparents, two sets of great-grandparents, uncles, aunts and more cousins than you can shake a stick at are buried there. My New Hope roots run pretty deep.
I'm going home this week to speak at New Hope's 140th anniversary. To be invited is more than an honor. It's a sacred duty. Whether you realize it or not, everyone has spiritual roots. Somewhere along the line, someone gave and sacrificed to help you have a spiritual foundation. The people of New Hope did that for me. I thank God for them.
People I will not meet until I am in heaven started a church 140 years ago. They believed. They gave. Their faith seeped into my soul and has carried me a long way in my journey. They named their church New Hope. Isn't that what Jesus really brings?
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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