Most of the time, the little country church stands vacant, but Sunday morning, its double doors were thrown wide, welcoming visitors with the same genial charm it has exuded for more than a century. A chilly breeze ruffled the white linens and wafted across the half-filled pews, subtly reminding the faithful that the worship of yesteryear was a no-frills experience.
It is a classic scene in the South. White-painted frame churches like Mt. Pleasant United Methodist dot pine-strewn hillsides and hold vigils over lonely roads abandoned by all but the occasional driver who, weary of the fast-lane, exits the interstates in search of a rapidly disappearing way of life.
But here on Wright Road, halfway between Caledonia and Steens, one community has turned back the hands of time, restoring not only their beloved church but also reinvigorating a decades-old tradition that not only connects them with their past but also hints toward a new understanding of what is gained — and lost — in the pursuit of progress.
In 1999, when Edith Reeves first raised the issue of renovating the historic church, which was built in 1892, she got little response. The once-thriving congregation had faded out nearly a decade before, and though Mt. Pleasant was still used every Mother’s Day for a Decoration Day homecoming, she knew it wouldn’t survive if someone didn’t make urgent repairs.
The space between the pine floor slats seemed to widen a little more each year, exposing the dirt below. The walls and ceiling, clad in a herringbone pattern of four-inch tongue-and-groove pine, needed to be caulked. The tin roof needed to be replaced. The church was literally coming apart at the seams.
So she and her husband took it upon themselves to save Mt. Pleasant.
As vice-president of Ceco Building Systems in Columbus, James Reeves had both the experience and the manpower to tackle the project. For four years, they and a handful of volunteers worked on the church, leveling the floor, caulking the walls and sandblasting and repainting the exterior wooden lap siding.
They kept it as historically accurate as possible, making no structural changes to the Rural Carpenter Gothic-style architecture and foregoing the opportunity to bring in modern amenities like electricity and plumbing.
When straight-line winds blew through Lowndes County in 2001, a tree crashed onto the roof, but the church was unharmed, shielded by scaffolding and protected by the hands of those who could not bear to see Mt. Pleasant fall.
Martha Jo Mims was among the worshipers who flocked to the church Sunday, carrying out a tradition she has enjoyed since childhood. Though her grandparents and great-grandparents were devout Methodists, her mother married a Presbyterian boy, meaning that for 51 Sundays out of the year, she attended church elsewhere.
But on the second Sunday in May, her mother — like so many others — always returned to Mt. Pleasant. Then, like now, Saturday was spent cleaning nearby Vaughn Cemetery and Sunday morning, before the worship service, everyone laid fresh flowers on the graves.
This year, there were baskets laden with dozens of pink and red roses, and now, as then, Mims was moved by the experience of past meeting present, tied together by love.
Mt. Pleasant can hold around 80 people, but only 36 attended Sunday’s service. It is a story being played out across the country as families abandon the simple churches of their youth for newer churches with children’s programs and modern-day conveniences like heat, air conditioning and running water.
As Mims played the piano, she looked out across a congregation that was a little older, a little grayer than last year. But she saw something else, too — a toddler laughing and babbling in baby talk. Someday, perhaps he would be among those to walk through Vaughn Cemetery and lay flowers on her grave.
She is comforted by the thought that the tradition will continue long after she is gone.
“I think we all want to feel connected, and homecoming is a way to connect with those family members and significant people who helped shape us into who we are,” she said Sunday afternoon. “That’s one of the reasons I come back. The people who were part of that church are very much a part of who I am today. They helped shape my values.”
But as Mt. Pleasant remembers its past, it is equally vital to plan for its future.
Edith Reeves is battling cancer and was not able to attend this year’s homecoming, but she plans to be back in a pew by next May. It makes her happy to know the church has been spared the fate that has befallen so many others
She recalls visiting Colorado mining towns and seeing similar country churches clinging perilously to the mountainsides, the walls eventually caving in until they flattened like pancakes.
“Mt. Pleasant is such a quaint little church,” she said. “It just needed some help, desperately, and it was laid on my heart that we needed to do something. I don’t think it would be here today. It was slowly going to sink away.”
Just as the Reeves made it their mission to restore the chapel, Mims has made it her mission to reclaim its cemetery, painstakingly clearing overgrowth and recording the names of the inhabitants. Recently, she discovered a section of the cemetery she never knew existed — around 100 graves belonging to slaves and former slaves who worked in the households of the white landowners buried higher up the hill.
In addition to her work in the cemetery, she also handles reservations for special occasions at the church. There will be a wedding in June and another in October. Occasionally, there are funerals. And without fail, there is homecoming.
Mims remembers the celebrations of her childhood as “the most special days they could possibly be,” because she got the chance to wear a new dress and visit with relatives, both the living and the dead.
“On Sunday morning, we would go by the cemetery and I would put my corsage on my grandmother’s grave, and then we would come across the road to church,” she said. “It was just glorious.”
Time has not tempered her enjoyment of the day. She draws hope from people like the young man who came to her after Sunday’s service and said that though his only connection to Mt. Pleasant is through his wife, he was moved by the experience of worshiping there.
“He said, ‘This is so special, couldn’t you at least do something? It’s just such a shame we’ve got this environment and so much history and such beauty and people don’t get to experience it,'” Mims said. “So it planted a seed for someone.”
Mt. Pleasant was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007 and trustees are tasked with making sure both it and the cemetery survive well into the next century.
But it will be up to the newcomers, those who fall in love with the old ways, to take up the cross, making sure Mt. Pleasant — and its traditions — age gracefully, weathering the storms to greet each spring.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.