Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Heritage of Faith

It's a bittersweet moment to say goodbye to a childhood church. On June 26, after we sang the familiar words to Blest Be the Tie That Binds, we gathered to share stories and memories about the Byers United Methodist Church, the church that has been a touchstone in the community since 1905.

It was the home of my ancestors. The membership rolls include the names of many of my family members, including my great-great-grandfather/grandmother, Mr. and Mrs. J.J. Moore, who joined with my Dad's Dad, Lester Moore, at Christmas time in 1924 ...

... and the names of my mother and her sister Merlene in 1949 (albeit with my mom's name misspelled).

The Byers United Methodist Church was my church home for the first 15 years of my life.

My parents carried me in the door as an infant. It was also the church of their childhood, since both grew up in the Byers community. They got married there in 1953.

And they were there at the closing service almost 58 years later.

The beautiful stained glass windows which adorn the sanctuary glowed in the light then and now.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my parents made the decision to transfer our family's membership to the Pratt UMC. It was the right decision for our family. But as someone who struggled with change even as a teenager, it took awhile to settle into a new Sunday morning routine.

The Byers UMC is where I sang my first solo, a 6-year-old's rendition of Jesus Loves Me. That first solo has led to dozens of special music offerings in the ensuing years. But it all started at the Byers UMC church piano, among friends and neighbors.

My family's roots in the rural church ran deep. One of the pews had the names of a grandfather and an uncle I never knew. Both were killed in separate accidents when my Dad was just a boy.

And on the other side of the aisle, we always sat in the vicinity of the Shelby Neelly Family pew. Last Sunday, I insisted we move to that side of the church because it just "felt" right.

It's where my sisters, brother and I stood in the pews beside my parents and my Neelly grandparents. When we sang the Gloria Patri (Glory Be to the Father), we thought we were singing to our Grandpa Shelby.

"As it was in the beginning
Is now and ever SHALL BE."

(It could sound like SHELBY to little ears, right?)

It's where my Grandma always had butter rum and wild cherry Lifesavers for wiggly kids. And her hankies could magically transform into a sleeping baby.

It's where I went to Sunday School, most often taught by my Mom or my Grandma. The Cherry Mash box still held the crayons, though I suppose new ones were added as the next generation of children came to Sunday School.

It was in those same chairs that I learned an important life lesson during a church potluck. I never forgot commenting negatively about a potluck dish ... and then finding out my friend's mom was the cook.

At the Byers UMC, we trick-or-treated for UNICEF. We had our little UNICEF milk cartons to collect change at the same time we collected homemade popcorn balls and Halloween candies.

My youngest sister remembers knocking this lighted picture of Jesus off the wall as a kid roughhousing with another little girl. It survived. She wasn't the only one to get in trouble at church. It only took one trip down the church aisle with my Dad during a church service to remember the expectations for pew behavior.

We sang around the downstairs piano for opening exercises, and I learned classic children's Bible songs like Deep and Wide, Oh Be Careful, This Little Light of Mine and Do Lord! And then years later, I taught them to my own children and my little Sunday School pupils.

(A poster on the wall in the Byers UMC nursery)

It's where we put our birthday money in a white plastic birthday cake during opening exercises. And we dropped our offering coins in a white, steepled church. Another worshiper and I looked in closets and in drawers last Sunday, searching for those cheap plastic memories. We only found this wooden imitation. Maybe other children have a memory of sticking their offering in its wooden slot.

Vacation Bible School meant cherry Kool-Aid served from this pitcher.

And it meant playing on the steps at the back of the church while my Mom cleaned up and got ready for the next day of VBS.

It's where we circled the sanctuary and sang Silent Night to the glow of candlelight.

Even as memories tumbled back, we all realized it was time to close the doors. Though the register listed 23 on the membership rolls, only a literal handful of people came through the doors each Sunday.

I liked the litany we shared during the service. It said, in part:

Blessed be the name of God, whose Word has long been proclaimed within this hallowed place.
We give you thanks, O God.
As generations have prayed theirs prayers and sung your praises here, your Spirit has blessed countless worshipers.
We give you thanks, O God.
From within these walls, many have gone out to serve You in the world.
We give you thanks, O God.
As we go now from this house into a further journey of faith,
We give you thanks, O God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Rest in peace, Byers United Methodist Church.

(This church building was dedicated in 1947.)

The Byers church was one in a three-point charge called the Unity Parish. On Sunday, another sister church, the Cullison UMC, also closed its doors as a worship center. Only the Iuka UMC remains.


  1. Kim--What a wonderful presentation of a great starting place for a lifetime.We had lots of fun during Sunday School and VBS, and I do remember the "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" nights as we all piled into cars and drove from farmhouse to farmhouse! There was the tiny room under the eave that we used for the young people's Sunday School room, and yes, I remember your grandmother as one of my teachers there. For such a small community we seemed to have a lot of people there when we were so young! I don't remember the names of all the pastors but it was Rev. Bland when I confirmed. Mom always made sure we were there on Sunday morning... something we did with our children as they were growing another small Methodist Church. Take care..and I look forward to seeing what others have to say... Ron

  2. Hi Ron -- It was so good to hear from you and read your remembrances, too. The room under the eaves is a storage area now, but I peeked my head in to look. The room in the NE corner off the sanctuary is another Sunday School room I remember as a young teen, but it was now used for storage too. (That's where I found the box of candles for candlelight services). Climbing into cars for the trick-or-treat trip was a favorite memory for me, too. Do you remember the year I dressed up as a computer? It is hard to stuff a cardboard box in the back seat of a car! We are fortunate to have been part of the Byers community. It was so great to hear from you!