Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Unexpected Encounter

When Eric and I were driving in on Christmas Eve, we passed a gorgeous historic church.  We were in a hurry to get to my Nana's, but we made sure to remember where it was and stop on the way out to do some exploring and take a few photos. The first thing that struck me about the church was its clean lines and how perfect the simple, fresh evergreen wreaths were.   The church had enough beauty on its own even without lots of decoration.

As Eric and I pulled up, we noticed that there was a man parked out front playing with his dog (a black lab we now know as Molly).  Eric introduced himself and told the man that we were just hoping to snap some photos of the church and asked if that was okay.  The man, Mr. McFadden, was excited that we wanted photos and said yes, take all you want. Then he told us that he was a member of the church, had his keys, and asked if we would like to see the inside. He told us he would give us a little tour if we wanted and tell us about the history of the church.

Being the history buffs that we are, we were thrilled and told him yes, please, we would LOVE to!  This church was founded in the early 1800's as Salem Presbyterian Church.  They still have services there twice a month.  The inside is breathtakingly beautiful...remarkably understated with a Puritan design. Very stark, simple, clean, gorgeous lines.

The inside of this church is so clean and simple, with a dusty blue paint on the walls.  It smells of polished wood, damp pine, love, and the trace of a snuffed candle from the Christmas Eve service days before.

It amazes me to think how many hands have touched the edges of these original pews, how many feet have passed over the worn floorboards and what those people must have been thinking about, talking about, worrying about during those times. Some issues remarkably different, and other issues remarkably the same as our struggles today, of that I am sure.

These pews were all closed off with little doors and are numbered...Mr. McFadden told us that in the old days, people used to rent their pew in church as a means of revenue to support it. The middle pews cost more than the side ones. Because of the time that it was built, the church has a great amount of history regarding slavery.  The downstairs was only for white people, and the slaves were permitted to sit in the balcony. The balcony was only accessible from two exterior doors. Interestingly, the slaves from the North plantations could only enter through one door, and the slaves from the South plantations could only enter through the other.  Mr. McFadden explained that the plantation owners were very concerned about an insurrection, or rising up of the slaves against their owners, so they limited their contact with each other so that no plans could be formulated.  An overseer sat in the balcony with the slaves to make sure there was no communication.

Mr. McFadden was nice enough to take us up in the balcony also, and while these photos aren't of the best quality because I had to use my flash inside, you can tell that while the view from the center was great, you can't really see the pulpit all that well from the sides of the balcony where the photo directly above was taken. Not many people sit in the balcony anymore, so it's not really an issue, but when 100+ slaves were upstairs, it was jam packed on all sides.  So that everyone could see and hear the pastor, the pulpit used to be about eight feet taller than what it is now.  It was lowered in later years.  At that time, the pastor used to have to climb a ladder to get up on the pulpit to preach!  There is a distinct line that you can see in person where they cut several feet out of the pulpit to lower it back down since most of the congregation only sits downstairs now.   It was surreal to be in the balcony and to think of all the salves that sat there and what they must have endured.

In the sweetest Southern drawl, Mr. McFadden then asked us, "I'm not holdin ya'll up am I? If not, I'll take you out back to show you the cemetery and the sessions house."  Eric and I were like eager school children and told him not at all!

The sessions house that he took us back to see was where the elders used to meet to discuss church business, financial and otherwise.  They didn't feel that it was appropriate to take care of that inside the actual church. Sunday school was later held in this sweet little two room building also. Inside the building, above the fireplace, was a piece of cloth framed on the wall that said "Women of the Church - 1959." Mr. McFadden pointed out his grandmother's name stitched on the list...he was only 3 years old then.

Another classic evergreen wreath adorned the sessions house; to the left of it was the cemetery and we headed there next.

The top half of these shutters are original to the church...can you believe that?  Mr. McFadden said they never open them for fear if they did, they may just fall apart! The bottom ones that are open have been replaced and are opened before the surfaces to let natural light into the church.  Because the building is so old, they had to be custom made and cost over $12,000!

Mr. McFadden's family has been in the area and attended that church for over 200 years. He showed us tombstones of some of his ancestors and also told us that there are many church records indicating people who are buried there, but there are no tombstones for them. So there a number of bodies in there that no one knows exactly where they lie.  He also told us that they have quite a problem with gothic people and "witches" (I don't believe in them...but I guess they think they are anyway) coming to the graveyard from time to time because it's so old. I wouldn't consider it spooky....just full of history.  Some of the men in the church take turns sleeping at the cemetery on Halloween night to protect it from vandalism. How sad that that's even necessary!

Eric and I really enjoyed learning so much about that sweet little church...all we were really hoping for was to snap a few photos! Mr. McFadden asked for Eric's business card and for our home address so that he could send us updates on the church and we gladly obliged. After thanking him repeatedly, we headed back to Tampa, with a warm heart knowing that there are still nice people in this world!  It made us both long to move back to the South again...even though Florida is located in the south, it's not "southern" by any means.  We miss friendly faces and people going out of their way to be nice and to help's just the way of life in small town Carolina.  Eric and I agreed that we were going to send a donation to the church and a card thanking them for the hospitality of their members.

Fast forward a week...we get a precious handwritten note in the mail from none other than....George McFadden. Judge George McFadden that is, from Sumter, SC.   The card simply said how nice it was to share the history of the church with us and that a chance encounter had allowed him to enjoy meeting a nice young couple. He included all of his personal and work contact information and told us to please let him know if he could ever be of any assistance to us in that area.

Being in law school, this was of interest to me of course, although he has no idea what my choice of profession is. Even though we may never relocate near that area, he was such a nice, helpful man, and a wonderful contact to have made in the legal profession. God sends us so many wonderful people and blessings in such small ways all the time if we just take the time to stop, notice, and connect with them. For us, it was a small country church and a dedicated member who took the time out of his holiday to be friendly to two traveling strangers.

At any rate, it makes me warm inside to see his handwritten note on the fridge, and to think of that little church with so much history and members who still love it, 200 years later. It makes me more aware of the way that I interact with others, keeping in mind that we never know who we may run across, or how much being helpful may mean to them without even knowing it.


  1. That is so special! It really is gorgeous looking!

    I feel like we have so much in common! I grew up in FL (Lakeland to be exact) before going to college in SC and then moving to NC. And my husband's name is Eric too (his family is from Columbia SC)!

  2. What a beautiful church with such an interesting history!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Most days I feel like I maintain a healthy balance between my job and my husband/blogging/house things...but there are a few days where things aren't balanced at all! :) Good luck in law school!

  3. I love that church! I found it randomly one day as well, but didn't go inside. Thanks for sharing the pictures of the inside!

  4. Thank you for this post. I was researching my family name and came upon this article. I live in Florence, SC and know my grandfather has some relatives in the Sumter/Bishopville area. Love, love this post. Wonderfully written. I am going to visit this church! Kindest Regards, Rosalind