First Baptist

The grass had grown up a bit around the old stone church building. This was the least of Deacon Smith’s worries, though. He wasn’t really even very much worried about the workers from the moving company who were loading the pews into their yellow truck. Mostly what he worried about was the people of First Baptist Church. Ever since Reverend Thompson had passed into eternal life, the church had been shrinking. People had wandered off. Old Mrs. Wilson had stopped coming because her arthritis had been acting up. Doc Lassiter left because the preaching wasn’t really to his liking now that Reverend Thompson was gone. Deacon Smith had tried to preach a little, but he was no Reverend Thompson. There’d been a few interim preachers, but most were young and none could support their families on what First Baptist could afford to pay them, and that amount was dwindling every week as more families left. In the end, First Baptist couldn’t even afford to pay the mortgage they’d taken out on the old building. They had sold the bus first, but it hadn’t made much. The man from the electric company was apologetic, but before the dirt road’s dust had settled after he drove away, the power was turned off. The man from the bank hadn’t been especially spiteful either, but as he put it, “If you can’t pay, we’re going to have to repossess the church.”

So there Deacon Smith stood on the dirt road, a FORECLOSED sign in front of the church, and teams of movers carrying the pews out of the church to take them to the wedding chapel that was going to be built inside of that megachurch in the city. The movers weren’t spiteful or mean, nor were they sad; for them, it was just another day. But for Deacon Smith, it was as though his soul was being ripped out from him.

About forty years earlier, Deacon Smith was known to the boys and girls of First Baptist Church as Tommy. No Deacon or Smith, just Tommy. He’d been ten years old, and the church building had been built when the oldest men there were boys Tommy’s age. Deacon Smith remembered running home barefoot down the road, fidgeting in those same pews that were now being hauled out as Pastor Wilson, the pastor then, had preached a lot of words Tommy didn’t see the point of when there was Tyler’s Creek waiting to be splashed in and frogs waiting to be caught and Mary Sue King waiting to have mud thrown on her new pink dress. When the service ground to a close, he’d thrown the mud, gotten walloped for it (but it was worth it anyway), caught frogs, and swung from the tire on that one tree that overhung Tyler’s Creek.

A few years later, Pastor Wilson had preached about Jesus coming back and taking the saints away, and when they sang that song about the saints coming marching in, Tommy wanted to be in that number, too, so he startled everyone in the church when he strolled up the aisle to invite Jesus to live in his heart, because whatever that meant, he wanted it. Jesus seemed nice from the way Pastor Thompson described him, so Tommy took the walk. A couple years later, Mary Sue King had started looking awful pretty and he asked her out, but things didn’t work out and she married Dan Ault instead. Tommy met Elizabeth Harrison at college and they were married in a ceremony officiated by the just-transferred Reverend Steven Thompson. The Almost-Mrs-Smith had walked slowly down that same aisle Tommy had walked a decade earlier, and Tommy Smith couldn’t take his eyes off of her. If he’d been able to think at all, he would’ve decided she was the most beautiful girl God had ever made, but as it was he could barely stutter out “I do” he was so taken with her.

The snapshots played through in Deacon Smith’s head like the old photo album was right in front of him: One nervous man in a tuxedo, one woman in a white dress, and a preacher, then another picture of the same three with a baby in the arms of the preacher. That same baby standing next to the man and a little girl in the preacher’s arms, and then another picture with the boy, taller than his father’s waist, holding the girl’s hand, and another little girl in the preacher’s arms.  The memories flashed past like the breeze on that late summer’s day, and he hadn’t meant to let his heart wander around the back of the church to the cemetery where Sara Lou Smith’s six-year-old body had been laid to rest under a small headstone with way too few years between the numbers on either side of the hyphen, where she lay waiting until Jesus came to get her and the rest of the saints who had gone before. But it was too late, and that heart-wrenching sunny day rushed into his memory and he remembered feeling the shaking in Elizabeth’s hand and seeing the vacancy in Elizabeth’s face, and the heart in her eyes crumble, which he was surprised he had noticed he was hurting so much himself. But God was faithful and Elizabeth told Tommy that God had allowed her to catch a glimpse of flowers he’d let Sara Lou paint and hear her song of praise in the wind, and that Elizabeth would see Sara Lou again, and their hearts had begun to heal.

Deacon Smith was feeling a little wistful for those days when Alex wasn’t away in law school finding God for himself and Emmy wasn’t off in college finding boys for herself. The movers were nearly done; Deacon Smith hadn’t been counting, but he guessed there were only a few pews left inside. He heard one of the movers yell, “This is the last one!” and an urge overcame him. He walked quickly to intercept the men carrying the final pew to the moving truck.

“May I – I mean, one last time…”

The movers set down the pew. Deacon Smith ran a hand across the carving on the side of the pew, then across the back. A thousand memories played through his heart, and he let go of the wood tenderly and nodded at the movers.

“Thank you.”

“Welcome, sir.” And they put the last one in the truck. Deacon Smith watched them walk to the front of the truck and get inside. The taller one started up the engine and pulled out onto the dirt road. They didn’t even wave as they hauled a piece of Deacon Smith’s soul down that dirt road and out of sight.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Just wood and stone, Tommy,” Elizabeth said. “The good Lord will watch out for First Baptist people.”

Deacon Smith sighed sadly. “The church is gone,” he said.

“The church is still here,” Elizabeth said. “We just don’t own the building it met in. We’ll make it. God’s taken care of us before, and He will again.”

“But how?” Deacon Smith asked. “Where are we going to go to church? How are we going to spread the news of the kingdom? Who’s going to guide the – ”

Elizabeth put a finger on his lips. “Tommy, you know the Lord doesn’t answer those questions. He just… takes care of us.”

Deacon Smith tried to think of a good answer, but “You’re right, dear,” was the only one that came to him, so he used it. Elizabeth smiled gently and took his hand, and they walked down the dirt road toward home.

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