Church’s anniversary got him thinking

Published 9:18 am Saturday, April 21, 2012

by Clarence Foster

My old country church, Gilfield Baptist, just west of Ivor, will be 150 years old next year.

I celebrate its presence, its age, its succession of congregants, a progressive culture, as a historical monument. Such an age places it in the Civil War, and it’s likely that some congregants were slaves.

I don’t know what to make of this, given the conflicting stories I’ve heard: One, that slaves in some places may have been forced to attend church for management reasons, and two, that slaves in some places were forbidden to attend for management reasons.

We have our spoken history, and I can remember the 100th anniversary in 1963, at the retirement of old Rev. King after 30-some years, and the advent of Rev. Curtis Harris (a civil rights notable), who would himself serve for 33 years.

There are some records, and four or five local churches that are said to have sprung directly from Gilfield. But for me there’s another more personal and dramatic authentication.

I returned from 40 years in New York, in 2004, and set to rejoining a very new Southampton County. I found my calling, a welcoming place of re-entry, right on the church grounds. I noticed, with some irritation, that wild foliage — a vine-choked thicket — was threatening to engulf some old graves that lay just a few feet from one side of the church.

At this moment, two sides of an old country boy came together. Along with the original, there was the Brooklyn version, which had maintained an annual membership in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens for years (You know the old saying: You can take the boy out of the country, but… .). The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens is several dozen acres of city woods: a woodsy, heavily flowered, manicured elegance. I took to it immediately.

I took to reshaping that thicket almost as quickly. I hadn’t gone far until I realized that those old graves were just the edge of a substantial old cemetery that spread 60 yards deeper into the woods. My childhood memories of venturing down through those woods to an old spring (a baptismal, ages ago) didn’t record the passing of graves, yet visible today in their sunken outlines.

I found my record of an early Gilfield etched on an old tombstone in that cemetery. It reads as follows: “Mary Hawks, wife of B.F. Hawks — Born 1848 — Joined the church at 8 years of age — Died Jan. 11, 1904 — In full triumph of faith — In God We Trust.”

I gazed on in wonderment. What Gilfield must have meant to them, as a singular accomplishment, as a place of refuge (however fashioned), as a doorway, as a highway to something more. It still meant all of that as I walked those grounds in the ‘50s.

It was pretty clear that just like the nurturing force of family and the multidimensional force of school, this was a training ground for life. Rules were in place. The guardians of those rules maintained a steady eye – expectations were levied, and felt – the force of community, the presence of providence, thus applied. Young folk had to be there (or else!) and look like something: like you were going somewhere.

Gilfield, and its extended family had an engaged cadre of inspirational teachers and ambitious landowners throughout the mid-century (and a significant number of World War I veterans had “seen Paree!” so to speak). Our annual August Revival was an exercise in multi-generational fellowship of multitudinous proportion. We were a people that week, from a mighty long way.

We emerged from childhood bound for college, bound for Smithfield Packing, bound for the shipyard, bound for the military, bound… . Bounding away from second-class citizenship, away from no pension, no social security, no health-care coverage, no prospects.

All sorts of shackles, real and imagined, would fall away. Subservient old survival tendencies withered and faded in light of a new day, trampled beneath the feet of self-respect. (I must say that recent years have seen a change in all of that, in many of our churches. That notion, that reality of a training ground for life, seems to have reversed in focus.)

It is with all this in mind that I set out for Courtland on Tuesday, March 6, on a mission of tribute to my old church. I approached the office of the county administrator, and that of the VDOT administrator.

I have this idea that a worthy tribute, a historical statement could be made through the naming of a stretch of the adjacent Ivor-Courtland road as Gilfield Parkway. I’ve been told that there’s not a lot of precedence for this.

As much is made of local history, I offer another, and certainly positive, item for consideration: a highway for a Highway! How ‘bout it?

CLARENCE FOSTER  is a resident of Southampton County and a 1963 graduate of Hayden High School.