My family moved to Varnville, South Carolina, in April 1954 when I was eight years old. Before the furniture in our new home was arranged, Daddy and the oldest five of us children, Sandy, Kay, Jimmy, Ricky, and I, started attending Varnville Baptist Church. That church, founded in 1877, is inextricably woven into the fabric of that young family that joined it in 1954.
Daddy served as a deacon, Sandy and I were baptized in the baptismal pool surrounded by its mural of the River Jordan on May 11, 1958. The rest of the seven Jackson children, including Philip and Helen, followed our steps into that pool in the springs of 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1967. By 1959, I was the thirteen-year-old church pianist and, in 1960, the organist. Daddy and everyone else in the family sang in the choir as they were old enough, and Kay followed me at the piano. We taught in the Sunday school and vacation Bible school and served on committees. Helen, the youngest, married there on July 09, 1977.
That small church and its Christ-centered congregation modeled for us Christ’s love as it instructed, guided, influenced, and sustained us. It offered us opportunities and encouraged us to have the confidence to embrace them.
Among the most powerful leaders of the Varnville Baptist Church congregation was Mrs. Nell Lightsey. Her husband, Mr. Norris Lightsey, was a pillar of his family’s home church, the Crocketville Presbyterian Church, but Miss Nell, as we knew her, was ours. Miss Nell, deliberately and accidentally, by quietly living her life “to the glory of God,” helped to form me for whatever Christian service I accomplish. Miss Nell was my Sunday school teacher for many years and my Girls Auxiliary leader during my teen years, but it was by the way she lived that she most taught me.
Mr. Lightsey went to services at his church while Miss Nell taught Sunday school at our church. Then, every single Sunday after Sunday school, Miss Nell entered the sanctuary from the front and sat near the end of her left-side, second-row pew with a small space vacant to her right. Still and hushed, listening while I played the prelude to worship, she waited as the few hundred other people who attended the service slowly filed through the double doors at the back of the sanctuary.
Then, at a point no one else in the church sensed, Miss Nell turned slowly around to look at those double doors just as they opened to allow entrance to a gentle man, Mr. Lightsey. He slid quietly into his spot next to his wife, and they both worshipped with us all. I quietly celebrated his arrival every time from my organ-bench perch, never able to explain how she knew exactly when he would walk back into her presence but feeling that it was a part of the wonder of being in God’s place. I knew by their example that those who love Christ can evidence that love while they are apart and while they are together and even as they acknowledge and honor their differences.
Miss Nell built the foundation of my understanding of God and Christ in innumerable classes, but that did not encompass all her teaching. She also quietly showed me that Christianity was lived outside the church as well as in it. And she influenced my attitudes regarding women’s roles in worship and in the church organization by attending every Southern Baptist Convention, by providing much of the financial support of our church, by speaking out in church meetings, and—much to the horror of some of the men early on—by insisting that women be allowed to pray aloud in the services.
During the fifteen years I worshipped at Varnville Baptist Church, the Wednesday evening Bible study and prayer service was my favorite service each week. At that meeting following Wednesday night supper, Sunday formality dropped away and everyone participated. Members of the congregation called out song requests from the Broadman hymnals placed in each hymnal rack. The songs we sang most often were the old familiars such as “Trust and Obey,” “In the Garden,” “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” and “I Love to Tell the Story.”
I learned almost as much of the Bible from the old songs as I did from Bible study, but the minister’s leading in Bible study was also a part of the evening with the focus not on sermonizing but on studying God’s word. I thought the lessons learned on Wednesday evenings were the only possible interpretations or understanding of each verse—a comforting self-assurance for a novice Christian. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I discovered that my best friend, a Catholic, another good friend, a Jew, and a boyfriend, a Methodist, had different understandings of key passages! And that they had the same self-assurance regarding their teachings as I did!
Following the songs and Bible study, everyone who knew anyone who needed prayer named it aloud. We then prayed aloud—with the prayers of women who wanted to pray included. I learned in those long minutes to take everything to the Lord and leave it there with Him, for my role was to trust and obey.
At Abel House meetings on Wednesday evenings, I have oftentimes remembered those Wednesday evenings at Varnville Baptist Church. We follow many of the same customs, though I am grateful that we do not have the sight-reading-songs part of the service—always nerve-racking for me. We do share a meal, study the Bible, and pray. We linger both before and after our set time, too, to love and support the members of our Abel House family who congregate there at Robert and Lindsay’s home.
And perhaps most importantly to me, we nurture faith just as my church family did for me so long ago. Some of us have been Christians for decades and receive spiritual refreshment through the Bible study, prayer, service, and love that fill the minutes. Some of us are new in faith, in the realization of the love of the Lord and of His presence in our lives, and grow as Christians through the Bible study, prayer, service, and love. And some of us are children just as I was a child on those Wednesday evenings more than fifty years ago.
In recent weeks, we have heard eight-year-old Ethan eagerly volunteer to offer grace before the meal and then pray a prayer of true thanksgiving for his father’s role in inviting Christians into their home for Bible study as well as for the meal we all would enjoy. We have seen Ethan’s friend Allison declare her love for Christ and her desire to be baptized at the same time as her parents, uniting a beautiful family in their journey through faith.
We have seen gifted seventeen-year-old teenager Gabriela suggest to her parents that the answer to prayer they had received be celebrated by their providing communion and thanks to God at Abel House; we then watched, delighted, as Gabriela joined her father in serving that communion to us all in the name of Christ.
We have heard the shy, cogent comments fourteen-year-old Reina has brought to our discussions and appreciated the gentle care she shows the younger children. We have been greeted week after week by twelve-year-old Jaden’s beautiful smile and quick help as we arrived carrying dishes, and we have been impressed by her fluent, expressive Bible reading and knowledge. We have enjoyed Reina’s delicious soups and her and Jaden’s fine photography.
And we have heard and recognized his poise, his love of God, and his confidence in God’s love for him in the prayers of high-school senior Gabe.
Our time at Abel House is all the more precious for the moments graced by the children who join us there.
May Abel House Church lovingly instruct, guide, influence, and sustain its young people just as Varnville Baptist Church did my brothers, my sisters, our friends, and me. May we as a church model Christ’s love not only for them but for all His people inside and outside Abel House. May we nurture their growth in faith just as Miss Nell nurtured mine. May we continue to serve them and each other in the name of the Lord.