North Carolina Churches Offer a Place for Prayer and Reflection
photograph by Faith Teasley

Each Tuesday in elementary school, a different minister from a local congregation would come to our auditorium and preach to us. I don’t remember what any of them said. What I remember is that we always sang a song that I loved, and that I never heard at my church:

Come-come-come-come, come to the church by the w-i-i-ildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the dale.
No spot is so dear to my ch-i-i-ildhood,
as the little brown church in the dale.

The semi-wailed lyrics and the thrum-thrum come-come cadence were both wonderful. But the best part was the mental image of a little wooden church somewhere in a glade, cozy and contained. Like the song, I was having a childhood, and I went to a little brown church, and I was into all things cozy and contained.

• • •

Somewhere in every town, not far from Main Street, a Church Street exists. On that simply named street — our forefathers had no use for the highfalutin; they needed landmarks — are churches.

And every church on every Church Street has an architecture that seems to reflect its denomination. The upstanding, no-nonsense, red-brick, white-door, with a straight-up steeple: Baptist. The quaint, stone-walled, shaded, dark-beamed: Episcopal. The windowless, unassuming, tin-roofed shotgun building: AME. The textured-brick, slate-roofed structure with wings and a real yard and foundation plantings: Presbyterian. The white clapboard, dark-shingled, with a portico: Methodist.

Or maybe that’s just how it seemed in my childhood.

Beyond Church Street are churches with interesting, more liberated architecture. Contemporary churches, with angled rooflines; sprawling ones, with covered walkways; spacious ones, with light-filled naves. Churches with their own city-block communities — gym, garden, school, and offices. And my personal favorites: the ones with lettered signs advertising church suppers and revivals, but more often, a quote that shows off personality (OUR CHURCH IS LIKE FUDGE. SWEET WITH A FEW NUTS), offers advice (GOD ANSWERS KNEE-MAIL), or makes a threat (CHOOSE THE BREAD OF LIFE OR YOU’RE TOAST).

• • •

I was told as a child that churches were never locked, and although this statement can surely no longer be accurate, the then-truism was a comfort. Here was something definite, absolute, proven, whereas quite a bit in religion — at least to a child — isn’t. Should I need to run away, or hide, or be alone, this haven would exist, with no expectations that I perform, or achieve, or even speak aloud. A weekday church visit — for choir practice, say — is still a grand experience, like seeing a teacher in the grocery store: Even when I’m not there, singing, or praying, or daydreaming during a long sermon, the church is still there. Who knew? Still a holy place, but accessible and quiet. Friendly as opposed to solemn. A pal as well as a parish.

Intricate carvings on wooden or marble pulpits and altars, golden organ trumpets, and immense stained-glass masterpieces are fitting in churches. All are worthy offerings of humankind’s skills as a means of glorifying God. But, oh, for those churches that come out of nowhere — on a country road, or inside a shuttered downtown store — with pottery chalices, a quilt as an altar cloth, and woven baskets for the offering. Pull over. Get out of the car. Hum a little come-come-come-come, come to the church in the w-i-i-ildwood, and try the door. After all, hope springs eternal.

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Kelly is a frequent contributor to Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.