I’m not sure what will flow out of my heart and onto this blank page. I hope it offends none, encourages a few, comforts some.
As is true most of the time when it comes to "things I worry about most," last night as I started scrolling through Facebook for weather updates and Garrett “sightings,” I was focused on the safety of “mine.” And then I saw a picture of my little church in Kimberly, Alabama—roof blown off, walls blown out, debris blown in.
And I couldn’t quite take in what I was seeing.
I haven't attended that church in more than 30 years. And, for the most part, the people who ARE that church to me have either died or move to other churches for reasons I won't go into here.
But, in those 30 years, I’ve taken that little church…and those people…WITH me. It and they make up such a large part of who Karen Kelley is that, to see it wounded and gaping open like that…well…I felt wounded...gaped-open.
The worst damage was inflicted on what I’ve always thought of as “The Old Sanctuary.” My first still-crystal-clear memory of this thing called “church” was in that old sanctuary. I was no older than 4, standing on the pew next to my mama, who was crying over a sermon some preacher was shouting about “the moon turnin’ to blood.” I was wiping her tears away and wishing I could tell that preacher to shut up and stop makin’ my mama cry.
At the altar of that old sanctuary was where I asked Jesus into my heart, where I saw “signs and wonders” and watched in mortal fear as my little brother would pretend to be “slain in the Spirit” and hurl himself off the stage. (I just knew he was gonna be struck down dead.)
In this old sanctuary was where one of my favorite Kimberly stories took place—when Sister Janie (name changed to protect the innocent) shouted down her “stack” and, as she ran by the board where the YWEA plaques hung, that long whipping hair picked up one of those plaques…and she shouted it all around the sanctuary. (Like I said…signs and wonders.)
The stage of that sanctuary is where I played the little blind girl in “Christmas Comes to Detroit Louie,” and learned to LOVE the gift of music.
That sanctuary is also where I became three peas in a pod with Joy and Pam.
|Two of the "peas": Joy in pigtails; me in blue.|
Downstairs was where Sister Gracie and Sister Minnie made Bible stories come to life through flannel boards and tables turned into sandboxes. That basement also held the church kitchen, where you could count on the smell of a constant pot of coffee brewing if Brother Jim had anything to do with it. And that far back room (more dark cellar than church basement) was where Sister Mary scared the pee out of me (quite literally) on more than one occasion.
In the “New Sanctuary,” which suffered less tornado damage but is still gaping and gashed, is where—after years of worrying and praying and bad dreams— I FINALLY was able to look down from that choir and see my sweet daddy’s hands raised in worship to a Savior who not only saved him but also instantaneously freed him from a 30+-year-three-pack-a-day Salem addiction.
That sanctuary is where our sweet Brother Thompson showed us what Love looks like, acts like, pastors like. And that sanctuary is where his…our…sweet Sister Thompson would be so filled with the Spirit of God as she sang about “The Love of God” that a heavenly tongue was needed to finish its verses.
That room is where, on a Sunday night, as I sat between Jeff on piano and Barney on organ (or vice versa), while waiting to "sing a special number," we all three fought HARD to recover after hearing my mama stand up and give this tearful, worry-filled prayer request:
"Y'all need to pray for me; my doctor says I'm a walkin' bombshell."
That room is where our Brother Jerald encouraged us, disciplined and discipled us, and where our beloved Sister Marla taught us that “you have to breathe before you can sing.”
And how we did sing! Across the entire state of Alabama, much of the Southeast, on street corners in Manhattan, and general assemblies in Dallas. To this day, I’d hazard a very large bet that every. single. member. of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir could—with just a little prodding—remember every.single.word. to every.single.song. of “Celebrate Life.”
That sanctuary is where Becca and I got in BIG trouble for laughing out loud when our "skippin'-Brother-Beasley- prediction" came true right before ...actually just to the right...of our very eyes during a Sam Luke revival.
That sanctuary is where I said goodbye to my sweet daddy. And where—years later—our Opa dedicated our first sweet baby boy to the Lord…surrounded and serenaded by family and friends.
And, most recently…so many years after all of THAT…that sanctuary is where I said goodbye to Sister Mary, my mama’s best friend--the same one who scared the pee out of me--said goodbye for both me and mama.
For some reason, not being able to share today’s sad news with mama—that the church she loved and worked for…fried countless pieces of chicken and apple pies for…fought for (even if a couple of those “fights” were with its preachers)—well…somehow it makes it more sad.
And...confession time...this special place is where I had hoped to say the final goodbye to my mama after this years-long season of "the long goodbye."
Over the last few years, as Facebook has given me the gift of reconnecting with family and friends, three phrases have become frequent expressions of how blessed we were…and didn’t even know it:
“Growing up Kimberly”
“Growing up Kelley”
“Growing up Kimberly Church of God.”
I guess that makes me three-times blessed!
I’ve read and "Amen" people’s encouraging words: “God will bring beauty from ashes.”
“It’s just a building; the people are the church.”
“Maybe God wanted Kimberly to have something bigger and better.” (Although I’ve learned bigger does not always mean better.)
But…for a few days…I just need to grieve what is now gone. And…that…well…that somehow feels fitting…even sacred.
So, for all you others out there who know the blessing of “Growing up Kimberly Church of God,” if I could, I’d reach out and gather you all up. And we’d stand in a tight circle… and we’d hug… and pray… and cry… and we’d tell our stories (for the 10th or 30th time) all over again…and we’d laugh…and laugh some more…and we’d share “I Love Yous”…and we’d sing—OH HOW WE WOULD SING—and we’d say a proper “Goodbye” to this special little place God used in such a mighty, loving way in our little lives.