A Piedmont Home Companion

In the style of an episode of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”…

It’s been a quiet week in Mill Bridge, North Carolina, my hometown. It’s been a quiet week, a sad, reflective week, as the fine folk of Mill Bridge, and Mt. Ulla, and Cleveland come to terms with the loss of three beloved members of the community. Thyatira Presbyterian Church was nearly full for the funeral for Ted Deal, who lived at the very epicenter of Millbridge. Over at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Johnny Moore was laid to rest, known to all as Mt. Ulla’s most generous farmer, and Salem Lutheran hosted the funeral for Becky Kepley-Lee because her own house of worship was too small to accommodate the throngs of people who admired her as principal of Cleveland Elementary School. People turned out for these funerals in droves, turned out because these three people embodied the very spirit of the community, and their loss leaves a much bigger hole than the ones the squirrels are making all over Millbridge as summer finally begins to turn to fall.

Ah, Millbridge. Now Millbridge is a funny place with a name about which there is not quite complete agreement. Is it one word or is it two? Beulah Davis, bless her heart, Beulah always argued that it was one word, and only one word, and it was never wise to argue with Beulah Davis, bless her heart, but you do find it written the other way too. In fact, a map drawn back in 1903 takes the opposite approach, breaking up Beulah Davis’ compound word to label a place called Mill Bridge in North Carolina’s Piedmont. And so it kind of makes you wonder whether the word “Piedmont” shouldn’t also be two words? Pied, meaning foot, mont meaning mountain or hills. Feet and hills don’t really go together unless you are using your feet to go up a hill. Hills don’t have feet after all, do they? Do they? But the Good News of the Gospel is that the difference between Millbridge and Mill Bridge is less than an eighth of an inch using Times New Roman font, and whether it’s a compound word or two words, it’s still a community full of lovely people who gather together at funerals and Fall Festivals.

Compound words, they’re everywhere aren’t they? At Mt. Ulla Elementary School just two weeks ago, they were everywhere, marching the halls even. All the second grade classes at Mt. Ulla filed through the halls on their annual compound word parade, showing off their butterflies and quarterbacks and mealworms and firefighters. The teachers also wore their compound words, but not on their clothing. Theirs were backache and headache and bellyache and heartbreak. It’s hard being a teacher these days, hard reading children’s handwriting and hard deciphering their attempts at spelling the words butterfly and quarterback and mealworm and firefighter, and hard to watch children you know haven’t seen a decent meal all weekend and who come to school without coats on cold winter days.

Right through the center of Millbridge, the traffic is increasing on Highway 150, more and more every month. It seems to have attracted the attention of developers who want to take advantage of that fact, so much so that they’re building a neighborhood they call Yorkshire Farms. What kind of name is Yorkshire, anyway? It’s another compound word, that’s what kind it is. There’re everywhere, those compound words. Is Yorkshire some old Latin name for “used to be a farm?” Or will the homeowner’s association allow only Yorkshire terriers as pets, and exclude all manner of other pets. Yorkshire Farms. It’s a strange name for rural Rowan County, and soon it will be filled with strange people from outside Rowan County. And maybe a lot of Yorkshire Terriers, who knows? But what the current occupants of Millbridge do know, is that they don’t want their way of life to become strange.

Yes, the winds of change are in the air in Millbridge. Until recently, very little has changed there since the days of Samuel McCorkle. But now the road is paved, and there is electricity. The Internet’s coming to everyone eventually, even if it’s not here yet, and some students have to do their assignments on computer, hotspotting to their parents’ phones. There’s another one of those compound words. Yes, change is coming and Yorkshire Farms represents it, and people like Mary Margaret Salvatore represent it. Mary Margaret Salvatore from Northern New Jersey will be one of those strangers coming to town. Mary Margaret was born Catholic, up north in New England, but when she met her husband, who wasn’t a Catholic despite his name, when she and Sal moved to Hoboken, they had to find a church they could both agree on, one that had just enough standing and sitting but not too much, and so they picked the local Presbyterian Church and made it their home. Well, that was 35 years ago now, and Sal’s gone, and her daughter Melissa has moved to North Carolina, and Mary Margaret doesn’t want to be too far away from the grandchildren, if she ever gets any, so she’s buying a place at Yorkshire Farms, and she hopes to find a Presbyterian Church nearby. And Jamal and Leteisha Pitts are a fine young couple looking to move up from Charlotte, and they’re looking at Yorkshire Farms because they know the traffic in Mooresville is slower even than life in Millbridge. And they too will be looking for a church in which to raise their kids. Yes, Yorkshire Farms will become the home to many strangers to Millbridge, my hometown.

Pastor Steck at Thyatira Presbyterian Church has been teaching Confirmation Class to the older kids, the middle schoolers and high schoolers. And he’s asked them to do some pretty crazy assignments already, and the Class has just begun. He’s asked them to write haikus and draw pictures out of the stories they read in the Bible, and he’s asked them to take a story from the New Testament, any story they like, and bring it up to date, to populate its landscape and its characters with their own landscapes and their own characters so they can make the Holy Scriptures relevant to them in this day and age. Now, Pastor Steck got to thinking that since he’s never inclined to ask people to do something he’s not willing to do himself, that maybe he’d outta write one those stories himself. So he’s been thinking about that not-so quiet day in Jesus’ hometown in the fourth chapter of Luke, that once upon a time, when Jesús, who’d been confirmed himself at Thyatira and had grown up watching his parents work at Patterson Farms, when Jesús came back from studying out in the wilderness at NC State where he was tempted by the Tarheels of UNC and the Blue Devils of Duke who promised him the moon and the stars if he’d attend those schools. Now Jesús came back to Thyatira one Sunday morning, and the Pastor saw him and asked him to come up to the pulpit to tell the church what he’d learned off at school. So Jesús climbed the steps so many holy men and women had climbed before, and opened up the pulpit Bible to the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke and read what he found there: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to put an end to racism. He has sent me to proclaim an end to national borders, and to make health care a human right, to bring hope to those thinking about suicide, and to make sure no child goes to school without a coat.” And then he closed the Bible, dropped the mic, and sat down on the red velvet sofa that was older than God himself. And all eyes in the 1860 sanctuary were fixed upon him. Then he began to say to them, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And then Pastor Steck stopped composing midstory because he remembered how the real story ends, how the townsfolk become filled with rage and drive Jesus out and try to run him over the edge of the cliff. He stopped because he didn’t want that to happen to poor Jesús, or to any other children of the next generation who might want to raise their voices to ask for a better world than the one they would inherit. He didn’t want them to be silenced. He wanted their voices to be heard, like he wanted Mary Margaret Salvatore’s voice and Jamal and Leteisha Clark’s voices to be heard in their new hometown, even if they came from Yorkshire Farms, with their Yorkshire terriers, so that it could be a hometown where everyone could be welcomed and celebrated like Ted Deal and Johnny Moore and Becky Kepley-Lee. Yes, Pastor Steck wondered how the new members of Millbridge could become part of the community like the old members of the community, and how the faithful at Thyatira could learn from the mistakes of the people from Jesus’ hometown, and offer a welcome banner instead of a one way ticket to the bottom of a cliff. And so that’s what Pastor Steck was thinking about for his Confirmation Class assignment.

Hometown. It’s a compound word, isn’t it. And compound words are things put together, things that don’t seem like they fit together but in actuality actually do. You see, you can’t have a homes without a town and you can’t have a town without homes, at least not in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Maybe you can out in Montana somewhere, but around Millbridge, the land’s too good to not share with neighbors, no matter where they came from. And the Gospel’s full of compound words, even if they don’t sound like compound words. Mercy is a compound word. And so is love, and so is generosity. They’re all compound words because they put together things that can’t be put together except by the grace of God, they join together human beings and God, things that don’t seem like they fit together but in actuality actually do. Love joins human beings and God. Mercy joins God to human beings. Generosity joins human beings together with one another. And this morning, the faithful at Thyatira are gathered together to consider another compound word, the word stewardship, as they consider how God joins them together with the world, from the very epicenter of Millbridge all the way to a mission outpost in Zambia, but also as close as one human heart to the next, God calling the faithful into relationship with what God has created, by sharing what the faithful have received.

And so as Pastor Steck pondered how the end of his retelling of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke might turn out, he had a vision, he had a vision of Jesus and Jesús, of Mary Margaret and Sal Salvatore and Jamal and Leteisha Clark, and Ted Deal, and Johnny Moore and Becky Kepley-Lee, and all the Yorkshire terriers, and all the butterflies and quarterbacks and mealworms and firefighters, and the heartbroken teachers, and the children with no coats, and all the faithful of Thyatira, all seated together on the red velvet sofa that was older than God himself, all of them welcome together, and he could almost hear them saying together the words Jesus taught them, Our Father…

And that’s all the news this week from Millbridge, North Carolina, where the crops grow tall, the problems are small, and the pirates are still buried in the cemetery.