Country church homecoming

August 18, 2010 11:28:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Every second Sunday in August, come rain or come shine, the faithful return to a wooded spot "10 miles out in the country" from Carrollton, Ala. Here, for more than 100 years, generations have gathered to celebrate family and faith -- not to mention a hearty Brunswick stew and old-fashioned all-day singing at Spring Hill Baptist Church, first established in 1842. 


Sara Mae Stinson is 89. She can''t remember a time she didn''t attend this annual homecoming and dinner on the grounds at the quaint, white-sided country church built on what''s known as Stinson Ridge.  


"I wish my mama was here -- she could tell you all about it," said Mrs. Sara Mae, the second-oldest living member of the now-small membership. "She came here as a bride in 1915, and the singing was going on then."  


Spring Hill''s Sunday congregation today usually numbers between 20 and 25, but it''s not unusual for about 100 to come "home" for the annual celebration. 


"In the old days it was a community gathering," remarked Stinson. "People would bring what they had in their gardens, and they would put squirrel and chicken in the stew. This was a big occasion ... we would all meet and just have a good time."  




A good soul 


In earlier years, the time-honored Brunswick stew was cooked in a big, black iron pot. These days, it''s prepared in a 120-gallon stainless steel vat the late Joe Bain had Glenn Machine Works in Columbus make for this very occasion. This summer''s homecoming is the first one since Joe''s passing in March. 


"He was definitely a backbone of the church," said Joe''s daughter-in-law, Donna Bain. 


Rubye Gates Bain, Joe''s widow and a lifelong church member, does her part to keep the tradition strong, peeling potatoes and preparing other ingredients alongside other volunteers the day before, and helping make sure the big event goes as planned. 


"Joe was a big part of it every year, and they trained their boys down the line how to make the soup," said Mrs. Sara Mae. "Joe''s two sons, Keith and Jerome, did it this year." 




Carrying on 


The "boys" still live in the Spring Hill community. Keith, 43, willingly shared most of the ingredients found in the handed-down stew recipe, but kept the proportions close to the vest.  


Start with about 100 pounds of chicken, 100 pounds of potatoes and 75 pounds of onions. Add corn, okra, peas, butter beans, peppers and tomatoes, plus flavors and seasonings. The fire is lit about 5 a.m., with the goal of having the stew ready for a hungry crowd coming out of the morning singing and church service near noon. 


"Our grandfathers Gates and Bain used to help do the stew all the time, then it was passed down to my dad. We started learning when we were little boys," said Keith, who works at Lewis Brothers Lumber Co. in Aliceville, Ala., and is a member of Fairview Baptist Church in Columbus. "It made me kinda proud (to cook this year); it''s helping the community out, and the folks who go to the church. I think Dad would absolutely be proud." 


The mouth-watering homecoming spread covers a long row of end-to-end banquet tables set up under the tall trees surrounding the church. Everyone brings something to add to the feast. The stew is sold by the gallon, for $22, with all proceeds going to the church.  




Joyful noise 


After lunch, singing resumes in the sanctuary -- which still houses some of the original pews -- and rings on into the afternoon. 


Donna, Keith''s wife, said, "The old hymns are sung, like ''The Old Rugged Cross'' and ''When We All Get to Heaven.''" The group Songs of Faith, with Joe Brown and Johnny Duren, led the singing this year, with different members of the congregation taking turns with solos or leading a hymn. Donna and Keith''s 10-year-old daughter, Carrington, even sang two solos. Keith and Jerome''s children are the fifth generation of their families to be a part of homecoming.  


"I''m so glad my children are getting to experience this," said Donna. "I''m 38, and I''d never been exposed to anything like it until I married my husband. People just don''t do this any more. It''s comforting to know that you''re around those kinds of people, that your children have a legacy of strong family and faith." 


Spring Hill Pastor Burt Noland said, "The purpose of the homecoming is to uplift Jesus Christ. It''s a time for family to come together and reflect on what God has done, and have assurance that he''s going to do more." 


As the years have progressed, the Spring Hill community has lost some family lines. Many young people have moved away, and the church''s congregation has dwindled. But that, in its own way, is part of what makes returning each year a special occasion, a return to roots. 


"I''m the fourth generation, the last of the Stinsons here," said Mrs. Sara Mae, who lives by herself in her great-grandfather''s house. "I can''t see, and can''t walk much any more, but I have the best neighbors in the world. People are good to carry me up there and put me in the seat. I just can''t do much any more ... but I sure like to go." 


With dedication like that in the close-knit community, it seems safe to say: As long as there is a Spring Hill Church to come home to, every second Sunday in August will herald a homecoming.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.