“My first Sunday there, we doubled the church membership,” my father always says whenever he talks about his days as pastor of First Baptist Church of Newton Falls, Ohio. I still smile when he tells the story. And it was true. There were four members on the roll when we drove up that first Sunday at our new church. When the sermon ended and we officially joined, my parents, brother, and I made eight.
For some time, our new congregation met in a one-room building with an electric box heater at the back that worked hard to warm the room. The day I left my snow-soaked mittens on top too long to dry, we all went home with the scent of scorched cotton lingering in our nostrils.
Growing up in Newton Falls was like growing up inside a Norman Rockwell painting. My favorite church social was the corn roast held at the close of every summer. In winter I pulled thick, cotton-lined leggings on under my dress and walked to school in the snow. My classroom desk was a relic made of wood with iron legs that bolted to the floor. At lunchtime, I bought a carton of chocolate milk for three cents.
The town’s defining landmark was a nineteenth-century covered bridge with a covered walkway, and it was the last of its kind in the state. Every day during marching band season in high school, the band rattled the planks of the old bridge as we marched in formation to the football field behind the elementary school.
My memories of those years are sweet, but life wasn’t always quaint and rosy. Some days were very hard. Chipping a Southern Baptist church out of heavy Catholic bedrock took work and patience. My father, with his native Texas ways and accent, was met with raised eyebrows. Sometimes, the resistance was open.
Still, the church grew and we soon moved out of our one-room church house to the second story of a building next to the railroad tracks, just above a bowling alley that stayed open on Sundays. The floor shook whenever a bowler scored big, but it was the freight train rumbling by that put my father’s sermon on pause. A couple of years later, Mr. Jennings Flint, one of our deacons, bought the bowling alley and closed it on Sundays. “Now we can have some peace and quiet,” he said.
By the time I’d finished grade school and entered junior high, we had a building of our own, nailed together from foundation to steeple by the men of the church. First Baptist Church was there to stay.
My happy childhood in Newton Falls was coming to a close. Before I finished high school, my family moved on to another town to serve another tiny congregation in need of a pastor. We’ve all returned to visit at one time or another through the years. The building has been remodeled and added on to, but it is still there and the church is still thriving.
My college experience in the ’70s was at times disillusioning, and disappointment might have shaken my faith if not for the fact that I’d seen firsthand the power of the gospel to change lives. The reformed alcoholic, the husband who came to the Lord after long years of prayer, the steel worker who served sacrificially–all were lives that reflected God’s mercy and grace.
But it is my parents’ faith and commitment I remember the most. There were times, I’m sure, when they were tempted to simply go home to Texas. My mother was an only child and she was many miles away when her parents fell ill. Family members gently hinted to us that churches in the Bible Belt needed pastors, too.
Their commitment to stay, even when times were tough, was the anchor to faith I needed when trouble and heartache came my way. I never doubted God was real and that Christ was worth every ounce of devotion.
While Norman Rockwell’s paintings of an America gone by may leave me wistful, I know that what I experienced was so much better. I watched the gospel come alive. I saw lives radically changed. I hope my children can point to my commitment to Christ as an example of faith. I want my heart to reverberate with His grace.
[This is an article I wrote the for anthology Echoes of Mercy: Resounding Evidence of God’s Grace, by Classeminars, Inc. and published by WinePress Publishing, 2013.]