I grew up in Shallow Well United Church of Christ that was within a mile of my house and the focal point of our family activity. Besides large extended families on both my mother and father’s sides, we had a church family that provided love and stability. The church was founded in 1831 when services were held under a brush arbor. Our Rosser family would have joined during the 1880s.
There was no water near the church so the leaders called on an old man with his hickory stick to find a site to dig a well. Water was found at four feet below the surface and the well was never over ten feet deep. Without that well, the site couldn’t have been used. It served the congregation for many years, and when it was time to name the church, “Shallow Well” was chosen. (history provided by church member Dudley O’Connell)
Shallow Well Church was a central place in our rural community and had a powerful presence for me. As a girl, I watched the women to understand what it is to be an adult. My Sunday school teachers when I was young, like those at Jonesboro school, were all women. In my mind’s eye, I can see them carrying out the responsibilities of teaching both Bible lessons and how to sing songs, like “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” I remember them in the choir wearing their robes; I’d join the alto section in high school. The women of the church directed the Christmas pageants and bought and wrapped the gifts Santa handed out at our evening Christmas service–always an exciting time for the children.
In the summer, the women ran our Vacation Bible School that was held for a week in June–before the beginning of tobacco harvesting in July. How we loved seeing our friends when school was out and we had a break from farm chores. Our Bible school teachers prepared craft projects, faith lessons, and taught special songs. I remember those early summer mornings, lining up and marching into the sanctuary, singing “This is My Father’s World” and I felt like I was part of something big. Looking back, I think it was when I first realized God’s spirit within me.
As a child, I thought the Sunday morning worship service, that we called “Preaching”, would last forever– especially on the days when Mama had made her perfectly golden fried chicken which we’d eat when we got home. It was even harder to sit through the sermon if a friend from church was going home with me or we had plans to visit my cousins; so much fun to be had if we could just get past the hard part of church. I don’t know how much I got from those sermons, but the feel of being there and the warmth of that group of people stayed with me.
Years later when I was in college, and watched shows like Saturday Night Live, they would often spoof Church Ladies. The women I’d been surrounded by for years were suddenly the subject of humor that made them seem trite and at times, ridiculous. I found myself considering those images against the real life women I’d grown up watching.
After college, I experienced those women in a different way that changed that negative portrayal I’d seen on television.
As we prepared for Christmas in the middle of December 1977, my father died of a heart attack. In our shocked state, we moved about our home like we were in an unfamiliar place– no longer able to focus on the ordinary household tasks of cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes. The women from Shallow Well came in and took charge– providing the steady hands on our shoulders guiding us through our grief. As a 22 year old, I didn’t realize they’d even take our dirty clothes from the hampers and wash them. What loving care they showed our family, the tender hands of God in human form.
They brought in food and insisted that we sat down together for the meal. I remember that one woman put woven holiday placemats on our table. That touched my heart because I’d been angry when our Christmas wreath was removed from our front door and replaced with a funeral home wreath of white flowers. I couldn’t stand the overwhelming fact of how our lives had changed and the reminder that Daddy was gone.
I was awed by how those Shallow Well Church Ladies had come in and cared for our family–quietly doing what they do without any fanfare, just taking care of us. It dawned on me that they were so good at it because they’d had practice with other church families who’d also gone through hard times. Later, I realized that they were there in happier moments, too.
The August after Daddy died, David and I married. In retrospect, I think about how hard that was for Mama–coming just eight months after his death. Her friends at church rallied around her, giving me a wonderful bridal shower and later preparing their specialties for the reception in the fellowship hall. The table was loaded down with their homemade contributions: cheese straws, butter mints, chicken salad, fruit from their gardens, wedding cookies.
When I moved away from home and left Mama in those first years of being a widow, I felt comforted knowing that she had the support of Shallow Well Church. She was a regular participant on Sunday morning as well as the weekday Womens’ Circle. Mama was always glad to travel, anywhere, and loved the trips the seniors took to Myrtle Beach and the mountains. On this opening weekend of the North Carolina State Fair, that is back after being cancelled last year due to COVID, I think of how she enjoyed going to the fair with her friends from church.
I love this picture, with Mama and her lovely smile on the right end, accompanied by some of the Shallow Well Church Ladies. She would have phoned me and told me in detail about their day. How I miss those calls.
When Mama’s health declined and she was diagnosed with dementia, her church friends were there. They watched over her and let us know when she showed changes we might not be aware of. One day I received a call from one of the women.
“We’re concerned about your mother driving, Connie,” she told me. “We were standing in the church yard Sunday and saw her pull out in front of a car.”
How thankful we were that they had been looking out for Mama and were comfortable letting us know. Soon after that, we had to sit down with Mama and tell her that we’d decided she needed to stop driving; it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It helped to know that we had support from others who loved her. They realized how hard the decision would be for our mother who was independent and always on the go, ready to get in her white Oldsmobile and take off.
Soon after Mama went to live at Parkview, since her dementia had impacted the movement center of her brain–causing falls, we were no longer able to take her to Sunday services. Shallow Well Church came to her, visiting often, bringing gifts of food and the cozy comfort of new sweat pants, sending her cards with the signatures of all those members of her Sunday school class and womens’ circle group. Since one of my regular days to visit Mama was on Sunday, I was unable to attend worship either. After she’d been in Parkview for nine years, I published my memoir and wanted to do the book launch in my home community–the place where my faith started.
In my time of need, overwhelmed by all the details of such an event, I thought of the women of Shallow Well–how they’d always been there for our family. I reached out to Laverne, who was my older sister’s age, and sometimes came home with her after church. I told her about the launch and since she was the leader of the women of the church, I asked if she thought they could help me.
“We’ll be glad to help you in whatever way you need,” Laverne said, in her warm and welcoming voice that I’d known since childhood. We talked of some of the ‘good ole days’ of our childhood at Shallow Well Church. She told me how she’d loved to eat Mama’s pound cake when she came for those Sunday dinners. I admitted to her that I felt I was asking for a lot, given I’d not been at Shallow Well for so many years.
“We’ve got this, Connie,” she said. “Don’t you worry about a thing. The ladies will be glad to help you.”
And they were.
On the day of the book launch, they brought in trays of sweet and savory treats, working efficiently in the kitchen to prepare and later clean up. How touched I was watching the women working in the background while I went to the podium in front of those who’d gathered. The Shallow Well Church Ladies, were now from my generation and younger, and were still faithfully being the tender hands of God.
It strikes me now, that I was very fortunate to grow up in such a wonderful church family. It was a different time in a very different community from where I live now–driving a distance to church with people from a multi-city area. Since the pandemic, I’ve mostly attended church virtually and have lost some of the connection I had before. It’s hard to respond to the deep needs of others when you don’t see them, when you don’t know them well.
In time, I need to get back to what I learned at Shallow Well Church. We were connected and in close relationships that nurtured our faith in everyday life, and carried us through life’s storms. I’m thankful for them and especially the Church Ladies who showed me how to be the tender hands of God.
A hymn that we sang at Shallow Well, “Softly and Tenderly” carries me back to what it felt like sitting in the pew on those Sunday mornings. I like the version by Carrie Underwood– because of her voice as well as the images of a country church. I hope you’ll listen and feel the love of God for you.