This post is going to be a little different. It’s about an experience I had this weekend. I just feel like telling somebody about it.
Every so often I do an internet search on my name, just to see if somebody’s saying something I ought to know about. Some years ago when I did that, I found a web page giving the history of a church. Well, I was interested right away, because I’m interested in churches, and it involved a fellow with my name, and surprisingly, it was a Black church in Hazard, Kentucky.
Apparently back in 1886 a preacher traveled from Virginia over the ridgeline into eastern Kentucky and did some circuit riding, accompanied by a teacher named Dan Olinger. A few years later some of the converts organized a church with 9 charter members, including a guy with my name, who I assume was the same person who had come from Virginia. (Perhaps he came up from Olinger, Virginia?)
Eventually a couple of former slaves gave the church a small piece of land just west of Hazard, up against the side of Town Mountain. The story on the web page stops in the 1990s, when one Dr. John Pray was the pastor. But that story resonates with me, not just because my family name is part of it, but because it tells of a handful of people who had experienced God’s gracious regeneration and who sought to gather regularly for worship in the face of considerable difficulty.
These are my people, in the most significant way possible.
Another family name that shows up repeatedly in the story is Combs. Back when I first encountered the web page, I emailed the address at the bottom of the page and asked about the history. The respondent gave me the name of a member of the Combs family and said, “He knows as much as anybody.” So I emailed him, and we began a brief exchange. My first question was whether the Dan Olinger mentioned in the story was Black. Mr. Combs said he was. I’ll admit to being a little worried at that point; I knew that some of my general line were substantial landowners in the area of Staunton, Virginia, before the Civil War, and I wondered if perhaps they had owned slaves. So I asked, “Do you know where the Black Olingers came from?” Mr. Combs said that he thought there had been an interracial relationship in North Carolina, and that Dan was descended from that.
I don’t know if there was any love involved—we all know that the rape of Black women by white men was not at all uncommon in those days—but it does seem to indicate that the relationship between the white and Black Olingers is biological, not just the legal fiction of a slave taking his owner’s last name.
Hazard isn’t a place you get to by accident; it’s not really on the way to anywhere. So I filed that story away in my memory, thinking, “Boy, I’d sure like to see that place someday.”
This past weekend I was asked to participate in the ordination of a former student in eastern Kentucky, about an hour or so from Hazard. I thought immediately of Town Mountain.
After the ordination service on Sunday morning, I got in the car and headed for Hazard. The trip was complicated by the fact that for most of the drive I had no cell service and thus no GPS; I had to stop at a convenience store and ask directions. (Yes, sometimes we men do that.) But around 2 pm, thanks to directions from a guy with an apricot-sized wad of tobacco in his cheek, I found US 451 heading west out of Hazard, crossed the steel bridge, and saw the road sign: “Dr. John Pray Memorial Highway.” This has to be the right road.
On about the 19th bend in the road there was a yellow diamond sign: “Church.”
I hadn’t been this excited in a long while.
Rounded the bend, and just past Fred Combs Road (paved) and Olinger Lane (not so much), there she was—a little red-brick church building, with two small white-sided extensions, and a parking lot and picnic area just beyond. She’s snuggled up alongside the road, the drop-off so steep that the entry door is six feet down from the road. Beside the front door is a plaque:
I’ll confess that I was hoping they had scheduled a dinner on the grounds for that day, so someone would be there to talk to. Afraid not. I left a business card and a brief note on the back.
The globe is covered with little groups of believers who gather and worship, who laugh and weep together, who care for one another through hard times, who celebrate weddings and mourn at funerals.
And we are all one. Often biologically, which should be expected in social communities, but more importantly, because we are united in a single body in Christ Jesus.
May it be so for as long as earth endures.