May 2020
Telling our Story

What Happens When Soccer Practice Comes Back?

The roads of the southern Appalachian mountains wind through deep hollers and over ancient pinnacles. Tucked along these thin strips of asphalt are small churches of all varieties. This is home to that old time religion and a faith group seldom heard of outside their own families. The Primitive Baptist Universalists are scattered between a dozen little churches on both sides of the great Blue Ridge. They are known among local circles as the “No Hellers.” A title which separates them from their close denominational cousins the “Hellers.”

There are more “Hellers,” of course. The Primitive Baptist Universalists are a religious minority. They made the decision many decades ago to keep their tradition alive and tell their stories. A fundamental approach to this mission is meeting together every Sunday, not as singular churches, but instead as one large mass. They rotate between the old church buildings. A certain family may drive four hours to join his brothers and sisters many states and many mountains away.

Their services are simple and beautiful. Anyone can stand and offer a homily or prayer, foot washing is a sacrament shared every Sunday, and a large meal always follows. They are dedicated to remaining together and telling their unique stories through their unique traditions. They find time every Sunday in a world full of distractions to share the ancient story of our ancestors and to build new ones.

Tuning in to church in a world shaken by COVID-19

The Episcopal Church has a powerful medium for sharing our story. On Sunday mornings all across this land the story of our ancient history, the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the story of our present lives collide. How important is this tradition to us? How important are these stories? Do we still yearn for them? Would we pack up the family van and drive four hours every Sunday to experience them?

One thing has been made clear with the outbreak of COVID-19. People still yearn for church. The online response has been tremendous. People are tuning in. There is no doubt that they are seeking the balm that once healed them. There is evangelism happening out there and there is cause for cautious optimism. Long lost sheep are returning home and the fattened calf is being prepared for celebration. The cynic could and should point out that we are now in a world shaken to its core. A world with far less distractions. There are only so many board games, so many jigsaw puzzles, so many reruns of The Sopranos. What happens to the beloved church when soccer practice returns? Are we once again relegated to the position of least concern?

What happens next?

The fear that this virus would decimate our church has in many ways subsided. People will die from this disease. People have died from this disease. In the midst of this suffering the church has steeled itself as she always does. She has held fast in the face of swift change and continued to proclaim the Gospel. The new fear is what happens when all those distractions come rushing back.

What happens when that fancy brunch place on the corner opens again? What happens when the sports fields are full with Sunday morning games and practices? What happens when late night college football goes into overtime? What happens when the workweek is such a grind that sleep feels like the better option?

The Primitive Baptist Universalists would brew a cup of coffee and step out into the crisp mountain air and meet again to share their story. What will the Episcopalians of the world do?

Will our people come back?

Attendance is the most important pledge you can make to your church. It is the hardest pledge to keep. The majority of Episcopalians show up for church about fifteen to twenty five percent of the time. The building block of church growth does not come from outside the church. That is a critical step, but not the first step. The first step is getting the church’s own people to show up.

They are showing up during this virus, and not because a computer screen makes it easier. They are waking up on Sunday mornings with clear heads and clearer schedules. And suddenly the stories come flooding back to them. Church, we used to go to church on Sunday mornings. Before the organs and canticles were drowned out by referee whistles and mimosas, we went to church as a family.

These are stories that can never be erased. How does the character Terrence Mann put it in Field of dreams? “They will find seats where they sat when they were children and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come.”

Will they come? That is worth a prayer or two. That those empty rows are filled again. That people come. That they come and sit in those seats they left empty long before any virus spread across the globe. That they come and find respite, peace, and nourishment in the stories that have filled the generations.

Pickett Wall is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Camden, SC and the host of the Grace Church Gospel show. He was raised in the Upper Diocese of South Carolina. He worked many years for the American Baptist Church in both Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Pickett was formed and called by the Diocese of Milwaukee. He and his wife LeeAnne have two children. Pickett is a graduate of The General Theological Seminary.


This article is part of the May 2020 Vestry Papers issue on Telling our Story