The white clapboard church has red doors, and a graveyard with more residents than the congregation has. It is 20 miles to the nearest gas, much further than that if you were hoping for a decent cup of coffee. There are no signs on the road except rural route markers, but everyone just calls it 'the old highway', irony or not, I cannot tell.
Ever since there has been a new highway, decades now, bringing the city folks to the beach and back, the world has most certainly forgotten this place. Wide fields of tobacco and cotton, real farmers from generations back. They remember every hurricane by name and year. Most have never left this county or the adjacent ones. One woman tells me, after asking where I am from, that the last time she mustered the courage to drive as far as Raleigh, it was the 1970's.
A bell calls them in, and they gather.
Slowly they arrive - two then four then eight. On this day, since it is almost Christmas, they bring not just news of their health and family, but gifts. Peanuts and pumpkin bread and candy canes and cookies. They each bring a basket and pass small bundles back and forth as they catch up.
I am reminded, because I have been here before, who has cancer, who is expecting a grandchild or a great-grand, who is no longer with us. No one sits in the seats of the dead. There are many open places. One grown child - older than me - whose dear mother passed last year, comes to church now when before he didn't. He sits in his mother's seat to keep her place, to mark her presence. He passes gifts today that she would have then.
To my surprise, they pass gifts to me. Many have not expected my presence this morning, but of course they brought something for the minister. Bags of all kinds are pressed into my hands. The man who sits in the back - he's a Baptist, he won't take communion - nevertheless gives me chocolates and says, 'for you, Father.' The sweet lady with the spectacular sweater hands me a bag and confesses that the baked goods inside are store-bought. 'I was going to take them out of the container and re-wrap them, but then someone would ask for the recipe and I would have to lie in church!'
I am laden with their generosity, their tradition, their Southern manners. I am overwhelmed.
Church starts and we pray and sing. The old, old organ wheezes. The weak light peers in through the names on the window dedications. They are all the same names, just one or two. I speak about the Kingdom of God and they listen politely. I hand them the bread and the wine and they accept it reverently. The only thing we share in common is this table that we all approach with hope and love, this pattern of words and movements and responses that have been ingrained in all of us, all our lives.
I send them back into the world in the name of the Lord and they go. Our blessings have been received.
Much later I ponder the strange privilege of invading this circle - they are as alien to me as I surely am to them. I marvel at how the language of our shared faith makes me one of them, even though I know our lives would otherwise never intersect.
And I feel certain that if we were to venture into our opinions on a variety of subjects: social, political, cultural, we would find many polar opposite opinions. We would never agree on the way to find peace among warring nations or broken families or violent communities. Instead we merely clasped hands, prayed for the sick and the suffering, wished one another well, exchanged gifts both hand and heaven made. Nothing was decided, but everything was settled.
Sometimes it seems like we will never figure out how to live in peace. Sometimes it seems like the invitation comes every day.