A weekend of memories and good times ended with worship last night and this morning at the 100th anniversary celebration of Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Urbana.
Friday night we met with ten members of Gerald’s high school class of sixteen plus several spouses and friends. The informal gathering at the rustic Fox Hollow at East Cape Girardeau to celebrate the Wolf Lake Class of 1948 brought back memories and many laughs. If Donald Johnson is one of your classmates, you will definitely have laughs. A natural comedian, who has not been hushed by age, Don cannot walk or talk without being funny. Gerald was able to crop the class photo to cut out Don’s hi jinks. But in real life, no one wants to eliminate the fun Don brings to any group. He has always made our lives richer and given us stories to tell and quips to repeat after any event he attends. Don and Ervina went to Cape and picked up “Doc,” the first classmate to need a walker, and I bet Don had Doc laughing all the way home while Ervina just shook her head and smiled as she has down through the years.
Saturday morning we were up early (early for me—not for Gerald) to meet up with his brothers and wives and others to celebrate his brother Keith’s birthday. After a lingering breakfast at the Old Home Place in Goreville, also with laughs and memories, some left to prepare for a roping at nephew Tim’s farm and Keith left to bail hay on his birthday. We came home to Woodsong to get ready to leave for our next weekend pleasantry.
During the one year that Gerald was in grad school at the University of Illinois, we joined Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. When our son was in Urbana for Gerry to finish his degree after two years in local community college, he too became a member of the same church. (After Vickie’s graduation from Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s physical therapist assistant program, they were married and Vickie started her career in Champaign-Urbana and joined him at PABC.) When our youngest daughter, Mary Ellen, was a freshman at U of I, we went up and visited the church. We have kept in touch with many of our friends from that special year in our lives although many have now passed away.
The church was actually started in 1909 in a railroad car turned into a chapel. An area in town by the railroad tracks was without a church. A group brought in a car and parked it there for a chapel. Three years later, a congregation had emerged and the Herald of Hope Baptist Church was established in a small white stucco building. By the time we arrived in 1957, the crowded little building was black with coal dust, but the congregation was hard at work on a new building on Pennsylvania Avenue. During the week, the men of the church took turns working on the building, and I remember making cup cakes or some kind of food to carry in when Gerald helped. We were immediately welcomed by older members and other students our own age and we felt loved and cared for.
Don Dillow, a young man from Dongola was pastor, and he and his wife Helen Ruth were fresh out of seminary. They had been there long enough to have a second son, and Helen Ruth was a wonderful mentor for me as I coped alone with our first born Katherine. She provided emotional support for my parental uncertainties as well as practical advice, such as bringing Kathy in sleepers for the evening service, so she would be ready for the crib when she fell asleep on the car ride home. Without family in that area, I felt the social interaction and the teaching that Kathy had in their church’s nursery program was invaluable.
Don and Helen Ruth have now retired near a son in Texas, but they drove up for this celebration and typically their agenda included acts of service to friends and family along their way here and for their trip back home. Now in his 80s, Don preached last night, with all the vigor of youth and all the wisdom of his age. When he shared a favorite quotation about constancy of purpose, it stuck with me as a touchstone to use in my own life because I have observed how that constancy has brought about wonderful results in many lives as Don and Helen Ruth have ministered to so many of us as they shared the good news and teachings of Jesus.
Today we heard Nate Adams preach, and he emphasized the importance of our local church and the people in it as a vehicle for changing the world. We went home refreshed by beautiful music, the joyful singing, the heart-warming testimonies, the visual stimulation of signing by the group with hearing impairment, the stories of international students as we ate together in the fellowship hall, and the stimulation of observing the cumulative results of a church started in a railroad car a century ago.
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