In my 65 years of church attendance, I have worshiped in congregations from Austria to Zambia, Florida to Hawaii and Michigan to Texas. Many of them were “out in the country.”
Very early in my life, my father, Rowe Benton Schreiber, now 91, preached for the Harmony Church of Christ near Bloomfield, Ind. I vividly remember arriving at the building with my mother, father and four sisters in the dead of winter with several inches of snow on the ground.
The church was off the main road, and Daddy put chains on the tires of our 1939 Plymouth to reach it. As my sisters, Mother and I sat, bundled in coats and blankets, he would bring in kindling to start fires in two tall, pot-bellied stoves.
Then he would go back to the car and drive up an old dirt road to pick up the one other family that attended. Summer and winter they walked to church, and in bad weather, Daddy would meet them on the way. The building had no running water, and trips to the outhouse are best forgotten.
My mother’s family — and mine, on extended stays with my grandparents — worshiped in a rustic wood building about the size of a one-car garage. It sat atop a hill a hundred yards up a gravel road from my grandmother’s house in Shoals, Ind. There were 30 or 40 members, but none of the men were willing or able to lead singing.
Grandmother, who was a music teacher, sat in a pew and started the songs while a coerced young boy stood at the front and waved an arm — sometimes on beat. It never occurred to my grandmother, whose interpretation of “submission” prompted her to wear a hat to church and never cut her hair, that she was, in fact, “leading the singing.”
At 23, I married Bruce Wooley, an unemployed accountant, and moved from Searcy, Ark., to Harrison, Ark., where I had a job playing Mammy Yoakum at Dogpatch theme park for the summer. The preacher at the church we attended heard that Bruce had graduated from Harding University with a Bible major and called him on a Saturday night to ask if he could fill in for a preacher who had become ill.
Bruce agreed and spent the majority of the night working on his first real sermon.
Four years later, I was handed an official-looking Ph.T. (Putting Hubby Through) certificate from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., when Bruce matriculated with an M.Th. (master of theology degree).
Our first official ministry was to the students of Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, the heart of rodeo country. Bruce and I attended goat ropings, cow chip throws and tobacco spitting contests.
We sampled Texas chili and barbecue but passed on the rattlesnake and “Texas Oysters.”
After building the Christian Student Center from an average of 11 students to more than 150 in five years, we moved to Abilene, Texas, where Bruce took classes at Abilene Christian University and did fill-in preaching for several area churches.
One Sunday evening, we were in the middle of a church service in the small town of Blackwell, Texas, when an alarm sounded. The men of the congregation rose en masse and left the building. The rest of the congregation followed.
It turned out that most of the men were volunteer firemen, and the goat barn at the high school was burning.
At another evening service in a church on the prairie, Bruce was preaching when the lights went out. The resourceful cattlemen went out to their pickup trucks, and Bruce finished his sermon in the ethereal glow of lanterns and flashlights.
When Bruce taught at Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould, Ark., he preached for the Delaplaine Church of Christ, a dwindling congregation in the middle of mosquito-plagued rice country.
The building was large by country standards, with a sloped auditorium and two full-sized classrooms at the rear. The main entrance was just beside the pulpit, making any latecomers quite conspicuous. The auditorium could have held 300 people, but in the late 1980s, the congregation consisted of Bruce, me, our 7-year-old daughter, two other children, about six other women and fewer men.
The regular members were descendants of families who had established the church many generations back.
At times, Bruce was the only male qualified to teach class, lead singing, serve communion and preach the lesson.
We always were asked to dinner. One hard-working couple in their 80s, Marcy and Bernice Fossett, kept a three-acre garden and a henhouse from which they shared delicious spreads of fried chicken, canned produce and homemade pickles and preserves.
Years later, when they were well past 90, I received a memorable letter from Bernice stating matter-of-factly, “Marcy fell out in the garden again, and I had to drag him back up in the house.”
I attribute all of our country church encounters to that portentous first sermon that Bruce cobbled together through a dark, Arkansas night 41 years ago.
That Sunday morning, we drove about six miles out of Harrison to the Bellefonte Church of Christ, which met in a tall, white, box-like structure that sat just a few feet off the highway. The interior was dim, and the pulpit stood on a high stage that placed Bruce far from the congregation.
As we sat on long, well-worn pews through prayers and announcements, I wondered what sort of speaker my husband would turn out to be. I had majored in speech but had never heard Bruce give a talk of any kind.
When the sermon began, I was dismayed. What I could hear was good, but I could barely hear him. I kept trying to signal him to speak up, but he was looking over my head. On the way home, he asked me what I thought he should preach that night. I said, “Just preach the same sermon — only louder.”
I haven’t had trouble hearing him since. BECKY WOOLEY is the author of the “Grit and Grace” clerical crime series and blogs at clericalcrime.blogspot.com. She attends the Brainerd Church of Christ in Chattanooga, Tenn., where her husband, Bruce, preaches.