I grew up in a very conservative Southern Baptist household. My grandmother was the one who ruled the roost when it came to our spiritual enlightenment. She was the church-goer who made it to every baptism, revival and church supper.
My grandfather presented his faith in quite a different way, a quieter way. His spirit was most at home when communing with nature, turning over the soil with his plow or brushing down his old faithful mare.
He didn’t have much use for a church congregation. My grandmother, on the other hand, had every use for it. They might have believed in the same fundamentals, but when it came to gathering together on a Sunday, she went his way and he went his.
But then the tornado came.
Anyone who grew up in the American South knows the awesome power of a serious thunderstorm, a thick bolt of lightning or a twister that dips down from ominous green-and-gray skies. Seeing a tornado is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. There is a reason so many Southerners keep their cellars clean as a whistle, their storm shelters fully stocked with canned foods and plenty of old-fashioned lanterns in their dark basements. When that wind starts to howl in the way that only a tornado can, you head for cover — fast.
I was ten years old when that twister came down and landed right on the church. My dear friend, who happened to be the preacher’s daughter and lived right there in the house next to the church, told me the story. “It blew it apart,” she said with wide eyes in a pale face. “It blew it apart like a bomb went off inside it.”
When the dust settled, there was nothing left of that church, save the old fireplace. Every stick of wood was gone, swept away as cleanly as if God himself reached down with a broom and tidied up the bare ground.
Of course the church would be rebuilt, and that’s when my grandparents found a common ground. For she was as handy with a spice rack as he was with a hammer, and so they each found their place.
My grandfather quietly went out to his shed. He gathered wood from our own fields, fine cherry and walnut. He enlisted the help of other men who had rough hands and strong backs. They built pews, one by one, lining them up in the orchard under the trees.
My grandmother stole away to the kitchen, where she poured her grief and hope into chocolate pies, chicken casseroles and more than a few batches of lighter-than-air biscuits.
Every few days, the men would load up the truck with pews. My grandmother would load up the empty spaces between with dishes of all kinds. They would drive into town, pull onto the church grounds and proceed to minister in their own unique ways, she with the food to feed the bellies and he with the pews to feed the hope.
Not long after that, the pews were in place and the food was lined up on tables in the yard to celebrate the birth of a new building.
Years later, that old church building had done its duty and the congregation moved to a much bigger place. During the move and subsequent sale, several parts of that old building found new homes. The pews wound up in homes and businesses.
One of them wound up in my entryway.
If you happen into my home, you will notice the long pew made of fine cherry. You will also notice an old dish — it’s an original Pyrex — there on the far corner of the pew. It looks out of place there, but it’s there for a reason. Ask me about it, and I’ll tell you the story.