It’s the end of a sweltering day, and the air conditioning in Hartsburg Baptist Church isn’t quite up to the challenge. Marjorie and Carl Thomas arrived early to turn it on before the 6:30 prayer service, but it’s more or less futile in the face of a summer heat advisory. It’s Tuesday night, though, and that means there will be a prayer service, hot weather or not.
The Thomases settle in next to each other toward the back of the church and wait for others to arrive.
Judy Taggart comes in smiling and heads immediately for a seat under the fan. She had called ahead to find out whether the church’s air conditioning would be turned on, but it still isn’t as cool as she would like it. Come to her house, Judy says, and she’ll show you real air conditioning.
The pastor, the Rev. Chris Sanders, begins to speak to the five parishioners spread out among the mustard-colored pews. Tonight, he sits with the people, forgoing the pulpit. He’s younger than anyone else there, except perhaps his wife, Wendy, and wears a black polo shirt, pants and flip-flops. Chris leads a discussion on verses from the Book of Matthew. While he’s talking, a few more people come in.
The church, nestled in the center of town, has about 35 members — many of whom are related to each other and have been coming their entire lives. Chris and Wendy hope this number will someday grow, but they are realistic. It’s hard for a church to get larger in a town of about 108 people.
“It’s small, and it will be like this forever,” Wendy says.
It may lack in numbers, but the church has deep roots. In 2000, it celebrated its 100th anniversary — and its stained-glass windows might be even older. One account says they were a gift from a previous church destroyed by floods in the 1800s, but Marjorie says that might be just local lore. On this day, the last licks of sunlight stream through the colored glass, casting patches of light across the sanctuary; it’s as though the room itself is bowing in prayer.
Later, that stillness is broken by the start of choir practice. Four sopranos sit in the front row, a woman who sings alto sits in the second, and Carl, the choir’s lone man, sits in back singing tenor. Together, they make a joyful noise — not perfect but plenty sincere. In between songs, their thin songbooks serve another purpose: When waved back and forth, they make fine fans.
When practice ends, it’s almost 8 p.m. and time for everyone to get home to families and better air conditioning. Outside, despite the heat, children ride their bikes in circles around the empty streets.
From the church’s front door, you can see the sun setting in the surrounding valley. You get the feeling that if you could reach just a bit farther, you might be able to touch something a little bigger.
The Thomases are the last ones to leave. They lock up and walk out to their white mini-van parked on the grass and gravel parking lot. They’ve been married for 57 years, and Marjorie has attended the church her entire life. One of her other duties is typing up the Sunday program each week. Their son, John, is in charge of opening the church for Sunday morning services.
The Thomases’ lives are so completely intertwined with this small white building that they can’t begin to separate it out.
“It’s just part of us,” Marjorie says. “It’s everything.”