Summer’s here and the African American church-homecoming season is in full swing.
In 1880, just 15 years after the Civil War ended, Rev. J.H. Dunston and a fellow believer founded the North East Baptist church near the Lowe’s Grove community in eastern Durham County.
“It was a brush arbor,” said the church’s current pastor, Wesley Elam.
By 1888, that arbor made of brushwood, was replaced by a new physical place of worship. According to the church lore, “dedicated men” carried “the ceiling on their shoulders” all the way from a nearby community on a Friday evening and erected the structure on Saturday.
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Dedicated indeed. The church, which moved to its current location on N.C. 55, celebrated its 135th anniversary with a homecoming service that included a a lively choir, a powerful rapper, a touching altar call, a spirited sermon and celebration that ended with a delicious, down-home fellowship dinner in the church basement.
Some historians note that the tradition of church homecomings, with its southern and rural roots in the African American community, dates back to at least the turn of the previous century. The homecomings are church reunions where tribute is paid to the founding ancestors of their congregations.
The family-oriented events usually feature an invited guest minister, lively and robust singing, acknowledgment of former and current members who arrive from out of town for the service and a communal spirit capped off with plenty of hugs, handshakes and good food.
The North East Baptist Church homecoming on Sunday was true to form with a service that began at 10:45 a.m. and continued into the early afternoon when the congregation lined up in the basement outfitted in pink and green, where church mothers served fried chicken, pot roast with potatoes, carrots, celery and gravy, macaroni and cheese, green beans, a parade of desserts, water and sweet tea.
A sense of history pervades the church and its small campus. There’s a modest cemetery on the church grounds that holds the remains of some of the congregation’s earliest members who were born in the late 1880s and probably grew up in the church. The ancestors included World War I veterans and the married couple, Aldolphus and Bertha Burt.
Adolphus Burt was born in 1893. He wife was born six years later in 1899. They married in 1915. They must have been devoted to one another. Bertha Burt died on March 29, 1979. Adolphus died days later on April 6, according to the tombstone they share in death.
High points of the service included the amazing presentation of a rap song, “He Reigns,” that was written and performed by church member, Fred Graham, 33, a member of the congregation since 2007.
By the end of Graham’s performance, most of the congregation was on their feet, clapping and waving their hands while looking upward in beatific joy.
A couple teens, Taylor Walker, 16, a rising senior at Northern High School and Destinee Wormack, a rising sophomore at North Carolina Central University’s Josephine Clement Early College, sang heart-felt solos for the song, “Created To Worship.”
Equally powerful was virtually the entire congregation gathering around the altar to ask for God’s grace and mercy for those who had fallen ill or passed on.
“We serve the God of a second chance and another chance and another chance and another chance,” Elam prayed.
The visiting pastor, retired banker-turned-theologian, Dr. Mark Royster, preached an apt theme for a homecoming service, “lost, but not forgotten.”
Royster explained that the Lord’s concern for children expands to those who are “spiritually immature,” and who may even “backslide.”
Royster’s sermon was based on the Christ’s parable of the shepherd who had 100 sheep, but only counted 99 at the day’s end and went out to look for the one wayward sheep. He then compared the sheep to Christian believers.
“At some time in our lives, we have all gone astray,” he said. “Where is that person who used to sit beside you in church? What happened to that person who used to sing in the choir? What happened to that deacon? W here are they?”
Royster reminded the congregation that during this homecoming season, “God wants all of us, saved, safe and in the fold of other believers.”
He challenged the congregation to go looking for those “lost in the wilderness.
“Don’t forget that brother, don’t forget that sister, don’t forget that person on drugs...on this homecoming Sunday won’t you go find that lost sheep?”
At the worship service’s end, Elam, in fine humor, asked the congregation to let the church elders line up first for the food.
“Allow them to cut in front of you,” Elam said. “And don’t worry, the preacher ain’t going to eat up all the chicken.”
Then Elam thought about the timely sermon Royster delivered and solemnly pronounced that the guest pastor, “deserves an extra piece today. Hallelujah. Amen.”