Along the eastern seaboard of America winds a highway renowned for tumult. Called the Coastal Highway, US #17 tiptoes north from west central Florida to Virginia, following the track of some of the worst hurricanes ever to rake these parts. On its way, it ranges past the barrier islands of the Georgia coast, setting of pirate escapades that have spawned Hollywood blockbusters – read ‘Jack Sparrow’ – whose inspiration flows from Edward Teach, aka ‘Blackbeard’. Three centuries ago, his renegade sloops ruled these inlets and channels, but by terror of runaway facial hair rather than firepower, though a ‘haint’ lingers on to scare the bejeevers out of the savvy and curious. Out in the gloom of these lagoons hang, too, the cries of those once brought in chains across the sea to work plantations of rice, tobacco and cotton. All told, the air can weigh heavy here.
Just off this highway of storms, in a world of marsh and shallows, of estuaries, sedges and oak draped with moss, there awaits on a shy turn-off near Darien, GA, the ‘Smallest Church in America’. As roadside attractions go, however, it does offer occasion to pause and ponder. No trapping is amiss – worn hymnals and sacred writ on the pulpit, a dozen chairs, even a stained glass window from Britain. Someone had left a few stray coins at the lectern the day I visited; this is America’s Bible Belt, after all. An unruly guest book boasts names and comment from across the country and abroad. The entryway remains ever open and ample parking costs nothing. In a small tower outside hangs a bell the visitor may ring at leisure, and arcing above the genteel scene, a grove of trees that have withstood the rack of storm and time. No gift shop, no food truck, no chatty guide, no carnival hype.
Most visitors snap a souvenir selfie, sign the guest book and within ten minutes return to the highway in search of a rest room. Few would notice what is certainly the most arresting feature of this wayside curiosity that lends it soul. It comes in the form of a homely bulletin board by the way out. Close examination reveals that the board is festooned not by formal notices or announcements, but by a farrago of scraps of paper upon which visitors have penned personal prayers. Sheaves of these intimate phrases are left pinned to the cork by travelers who paused in silence beneath the shelter of the trees and left these entreaties – for redress, for healing, for hope, for peace – in the hope that someone, somewhere, that Heaven was listening. These pleas will disarm any eavesdropper for lack of pretense, their earnest, their natural eloquence, their earthiness, their humility:
The most riveting prayer came in an unsealed envelope addressed simply to ‘God’. Inside: carefully folded tissues stained with tears. The mega-church down the street or faith communities on hometown corners might envy such a bulletin board. It doesn’t take much: solitude beneath sheltering oaks, some scraps of paper, a searching heart. Taken together it’s a sign of the deepest of conversations whose grammar trembles with suffering, with desiderata, with mystery and with life. And all of that in the smallest of churches.
Lynette Teague says
As I read this latest story about the smallest church I was immediately reminded of this verse from Matthew:
“ And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Personally I feel His presence most often in the smallest of spaces…..
Mike Klaus says
Thanks for the heads-up, J.P. It will be a most welcome stop, as we plan to pass nearby on April 2nd.
Leon Janzen says
High Jonathan and Mary Kay,
Thank you for your interesting and inspiring story. I am enjoying your daily writings in the Rejoice devotional magazine. It would be great to reminisce about old times sometime. Juanita’s sister, Sally, and her husband Eldon Senner live in Chapel Hill but I haven’t visited there for some years. If I ever travel that way I would sure like to make contact with you folks.
Keep up the great work!!
Nancy Inman (Woodstock ‘49) says
Mom & Dad , Carol Aldrich Sandlin (my Atlanta youngest sister from Woodstock) along with our husbands traveled to this modest sacred place some years back. Thanks for writing about it so poignantly.
Nancy Aldrich Inman ( also forged by the foothills & Woodstock )
Lone Motswiri says
Moruti Jonathan & Mary Kay
Thank you so much for inpiring story. It reminds me of the work we did at Mmachabe orphanage. We hope that one day you may visit us again one last time.