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The Reverend W.O. Stone was a force to contend with.
When he and his family moved to Bemis, a small mill town south of Jackson, Tennessee, they knew that they were entering a community divided by history, by hatred, by race, and by stubborn Southern tradition. But Reverend Stone?a man of great and profound faith?reached out, risked everything, and did his part to forge a brighter future for his community by confronting the harsh realities of racism and segregation. There, ...
The Reverend W.O. Stone was a force to contend with.
When he and his family moved to Bemis, a small mill town south of Jackson, Tennessee, they knew that they were entering a community divided by history, by hatred, by race, and by stubborn Southern tradition. But Reverend Stone?a man of great and profound faith?reached out, risked everything, and did his part to forge a brighter future for his community by confronting the harsh realities of racism and segregation. There, Reverend Stone and his wife raised five children amid dark and dangerous times in American history.
As told through the eyes and memory of his middle child, Virginia, Hands on the Railing provides an intimate and personal glimpse into the lives of this brave and forward-thinking man and the people he loved, worked with, and prayed for. He survived the ugliest moments of a time when violence ruled the day, including the burning of a church, attacks on his dignity and person, and many unkind words along the way. Disillusioned by the seedy side of Southern pride and ignorance, his faith was sorely tested. But through experience and by the power of faith on bended knee, the good reverend struggled to find the strength, courage, and wisdom to confront the many demons in his life, both within and without.
Through it all, W.O. was a spellbinding preacher, a loving husband, and a good father, a man who made his mark in the world with dignity, faith, and honor.
The Union Church
"I'm sweatin' so much my underwear's riding north, finding new places to hide. I sure wish the preachin' would start; even God's lookin' for a fan," said Sadie in a voice you could hear at the other end of town. Hogs came in from the fields – even when they weren't supposed to – just hearing her voice. And, when she sat in her pew, God forbid if you happened to be next to her; she took up all the air around, and the pew, too. Always dressed in a print dress with a matching hat, Miss Sadie was a woman who couldn't be missed. She had a round face with a dimple in her chin and was always smiling. A large woman, with a jovial personality; always in the need to be the center of attention.
On Sunday, about the only thing you did was go to church, eat, go back to church; and do the same thing that evening. This morning the air was still, not a breeze, and people filed slowly into church, going two by two, like animals to the Ark. The sweet smell of lilac perfume and body chemistry filled the air.
"Wow," thought Billy Mills, catching his first glimpse of Virginia Stone in church. He was sweet on Virginia.
"Man alive, only God could put together a girl like that; no human could do that," he mused hopefully, watching her walk down the aisle.
Billy Mills was eighteen, three years older than Virginia Stone. Tall and handsome, his work at the mill evidently kept him in shape. He had played football at Bemis high school, was a star, and wanted to go to Lambuth, the Methodist College in Jackson, but could not afford it; so, Billy started working with his father in the mill. In these difficult times, with the economy on the brink of collapse, if more members of a family could work, that's what they did, just to put food on the table.
Virginia Stone was, by no stretch of imagination, one beautiful girl at fifteen. Her face was perfect; high cheekbones, smooth skin, and jet black hair close cut to her head, with a part on the right side. If there was ever a pinup from Hollywood, she filled the order. When she turned and looked back over her shoulder, a queasy feeling filled the pit of Billy's stomach; he would swallow hard, almost gulp. Her looks alone transfixed you to stone, and for that brief moment, one felt he had just seen Venus. As she walked down the aisle of the church, searching for the same pew, all male eyes, young and old were entranced, watching her flowing, Sunday dress gently lift from the under current. When Virginia sat next to her four sisters, there was a silent sigh from those onlookers.
The bell rang the news: church was underway, and Lord help you if you were late. With his strong hands, Mr. Larry, a choir member in his seventies, reached high up to grasp the bell rope, then pulled down with everything he had. Suddenly, you heard the peal from the belfry as the heavy iron clapper struck the inner skin of the bell. Its sound was unmistakable, and of course, by the final stroke, some last minute Methodist always just barely made it through the front door.
This Sunday, it was Shelly Townsend and she just didn't look quite right – hair a little out of place, as if just in from the wind, her lipstick smeared as if applied by her baby sister. Shelly and her beau, Ninety-Six, were ringing each other's bells, necking behind an old oak tree big enough to hide them, but close enough to the church. People called him Ninety-Six, because he came from a small South Carolina town called Ninety-Six; some weren't sure of his real name. The epitome of a Southern good ol' boy, tall and lanky, with more tattoos than a road map, he and Shelly had been an item for a while. Passion and beer was Ninety-Six's whole life; for him, going to church was just another day with Shelly.
Shelly was a beautiful blonde, always painted up, lips in the right place, and not a hair out of place. She had that glamour look, so much so, that many people felt she was out of place in this bucolic mill town. Though a Southern Belle, she was a little too shiny for this small corner of the map and had a teasing reputation for leading boys to the trough, then leaving them dry.
The day was warm and the sun pierced the windows as W.O. entered the front of the church, walked through the vestibule, down the aisle, up the steps to his chair behind the pulpit. He sat, adjusted his coat, and made himself comfortable while the choir filed in and took their seats. The seven members, including Mister Larry and W.O.'s wife Miss Susie, opened their hymnals and waited for Mister Jason Straighthorse the Third to take his place at the organ. He was a spindly man with a large nose that had a hump in it. He wore black wire rimmed glasses and, with his hair slicked down, looked like a character right out of a Dickens' novel.
Even though W.O. Stone was the new pastor in town, everyone had to wait for Mr. Jason Straighthorse, III. Some children in the front pew were giggling and whispering, but while W.O. paid no attention, Mr. Straighthorse peered over his glasses, furrowed his brow, looked right at the children with a glare, and cleared his throat. Then, all was quiet.
With every fan a-fanning, the preacher stepped up to the pulpit. At six feet, four inches tall, you couldn't miss W.O. Stone. His voice carried, some said, all the way down to Pinson, enough to wake up the Indians who rested in those mounds for a thousand years. If anybody could raise them up, the preacher could.
The Reverend William Owen Stone, a proud father, looked down with deep satisfaction at his five beautiful PK's – preacher's kids – spread out in one pew. The town would never be the same; how do you concentrate when, out of one eye, you're trying to pay attention to the Gospel, and out of the other eye, you can't help but look at the third pew on the left side of the church? Five beautiful girls, the daughters of the preacher, W.O ... What a sight!
W.O. peered out over the congregation, tried to get a feel for what he was up against, took a deep breath, and began what was to become a memorable sermon. He always tried to choose subjects that would stir the mind, like Abraham Lincoln did in his law practice when reviewing a case. W.O. would practice, "drying out his sermons before the fire", to understand the scripture and apply it to his lesson.
The sermon for this day came from parts of John Wesley's sermon 86 and from Psalms: 77:7-8, entitled, A Call To Backsliders. W.O. admired the Methodist Church founder and felt the sermons given by Wesley not only served well in his day, but could be applied to the times in which W.O. lived.
With his Bible in hand, Reverend Stone began without hesitation, "Today, I want us to look at where we are." His deep baritone voice penetrated the church.
He continued, "Man has made his bed and he will continue to lie in it, just as you will if you don't listen to what God is trying to say to you. You will wallow in the mud, just like the animals on a farm, and come out just as dirty," he commanded.
"Listen to what John Wesley said as he preached to a similar congregation in his time."
By now, W.O. felt he held his listeners with an opening statement that grabbed and kept each and every one of them in their seats.
"It is on this day that God is asking you the big question," he said.
He looked down at his notes and began to read the passage taken from Wesley's manu-script, "'A yet more dreadful passage, if possible than this, is that in the twelfth chapter of St. Matthew,'" he began, "'All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men. But the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.'"
"'And in St. Mark, 'Verily I say unto you, all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemers where with so ever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost shall never be forgiven, but is in danger of eternal damnation!'"
The congregation sat up with a start, as the preacher turned up his volume, with a voice heard in the rafters of the sanctuary, and all the way to Pinson, south of town. Miss Sadie jumped with a start, causing her hat to drift sideways. She appeared as if she had just been awakened from a dream. She straightened up her hat, looked around and could see that the congregation too had been brought to its attention.
Some say it was that very sermon that caused the steeple's cross to tilt. Guilt permeated the followers for about a week, until the next Sunday, when they went through it all over again. It was like playing a game, week to week.
The service ended, followed by the "Good mornings," "How are ya," "Good to see you," and the inevitable, "He went over again; I guess he needs a new watch to time himself," referring to the preacher's lengthy sermon.
The day was hot, all the more reason to get out. How the minister dressed the way he did is hard to imagine: a dark suit, straight high collar, starched, stiff as a board. After greeting everyone at the front, W.O. slipped to the back where Susie, his wife, waited for him. Susie Stone, originally a Black, was courted by W.O. in a buggy and came from Bolivar, Tennessee; a sleepy town in Hardin County. No one really knew if she was an actual child of the Black's. They had money and owned half the town, but she never realized any of their small fortune, only the debt and a few buildings around the square.
"You let them have it today," Susie said, giving him an approving kiss on the cheek.
"Sometimes I feel like I am speaking to the Disciples and they just don't get it, they just don't understand," said W.O.
"Change will have to take place not only here, within this sanctuary, but in the town as well," W.O. said hushed and soft spoken. He knew his voice carried quite a distance.
As the church emptied, W.O. walked around inside the church to see that everything was locked up. Meanwhile, Miss Susie gathered things up, and then waited for him out beyond the side door.
As W.O. headed to the back of the church to check on the back door, he heard a voice singing, "Swing low, sweet chariot / Comin' for to carry me home."
He walked into the church kitchen and spotted a figure, Mr. Grady, the grounds keeper and maintenance man, sweeping the floor. Nate Grady had just moved back to his home in Bemis from Florida where he worked on Flagler's railroad, built to carry wealthy northern families to South Florida for the winter. Before that, he had been in the army and fought in France during World War One. A handyman of many trades – electrician, plumber, and carpenter – Grady was exactly what the church needed. He was very thin and his face showed his years; weathered and lined with glasses just perched at the end of his nose.
"Reverend," he said, "I remember the guns in France, when we were hitting Germans with all we had, and our captain said, 'Alright men let 'em have it, fire at will, fire at will with all ya got!'"
Then Grady took his broom and held it up, as if it were a rifle, and pointed at some-thing in the room.
He continued, "Yes sir, the guns were firing so fast that, when we put wet gunny sacks on the barrels to cool them off, they would boil, just like your sermon today. Why, I suspect you stirred the nest this morning; these people don't see themselves as sinners. Oh no, they only see themselves as God abiding church goers. I'm tellin' ya, if I had a medal," Grady exclaimed, "I'd pin it on you, just like the captain pinned one on me, yes Sir, by golly, I would do it!"
W.O. looked Grady in the eye and said, "So you would pin a medal on me, just like the captain did to you, huh?"
"Yep, ol' Captain Harry, he took pride in his men. In fact, when the final battle ended just before the armistice, I found the captain lyin' on the ground eating a blueberry pie and he had this big grin on his face. Boy was he ever so happy that the war was over; we all were! Of course, we all wondered where he got the blueberry pie," Grady said with glee.
"Who was this captain?" inquired W.O.
"Captain Harry S. Truman," responded Grady.
"Sounds like quite a fellow," said W.O., "but what did the 'S' stand for?"
"Don't know," Grady answered, "but if you think about it, as soldiers, we'd fill in the blank, use any word that started with an 'S', if ya know what I mean."
"I fully understand," replied W.O., "ready to close up?"
"I guess so, let me empty the trash and we'll be out of here," said Grady with a smile.
W.O. turned around, left the kitchen area, and headed back across the sanctuary towards the side door. As he passed in front of the altar, something made him look at the pulpit and altar where a beautiful gold cross graced the table behind the railing. It wasn't a sound; it was a feeling within him that caused the pause in his gait. He looked towards the railing at the front of the church, gazed at the cross, and envisioned many people kneeling at the railing, praying. He wondered what they prayed for, and realized, as their pastor, it was now his responsibility to provide answers for all those prayers that were being offered to God at this railing.
He thought, "This is one of the reasons I am here, but I suspect there is even a bigger reason that God has sent me to this place."
He closed his eyes then turned to the side door of the church, where his loving wife waited outside. He looked at the whole sanctuary and imagined his congregation seated, all at peace. While W.O. looked at the pews, he moved towards the side door and reached for its handle. Opening the door, he saw Susie waiting at the end of the side walk. W.O. thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met and was grateful she had agreed to be his wife. Now, with five daughters, and moving every two or three years to a new charge, he hoped that his family could stay here for a while. There had been six moves, six charges, and a daughter born in each of the first five. Miss Susie, or mother as he called her, was his partner for life and had been with him all along – not only a pastor's wife, but a wonderful mother as well.
W.O. approached the end of the walkway where Susie stood, reaching out her hand to take his. He took hers and, hand in hand, like two young people in love, started their walk home as they did every Sunday. Heading up Second Street, they turned right onto Massachusetts Avenue. They both looked back at the church, its Old English Tudor Revival architecture standing firmly. Even though Methodist, WO.'s church was first named the Union Church, and dedicated as such in April of 1908, but remained under the care of the Methodist Church. Both W.O. and Miss Susie felt at home here.
Up ahead was the side of the mill and, around the corner on Missouri Street, a group of village stores. The Mercantile, nearest past the mill, was where the first religious services in Bemis were held, upstairs on the second floor, because the town had no churches when the mill first opened.
Looking to the left he could see a whole different neighborhood, houses of the working class. Still it was segregated; these were the homes of the working class whites. He knew that behind the mill and across the swamp creek was another neighborhood that was kept separate from the rest. It was Congo Street, with small shotgun houses built for another working class of people that worked in the fields and the mill but certainly didn't socialize with the whites during their off time. Even their schools were separate, their churches, as well as their places to shop and socialize.
A harsh reality, for a man that certainly believed in love of mankind as well as the rights of all. W.O. abhorred the terms that were used to identify these people. As far as he knew he had never used the word to describe their color or their station in life. Yet he grew up hearing the word "Nigger" every day. Even his own family used the word in everyday conversation. For W.O. it was a word that was just not a part of his lexicon.
The day warmed as afternoon approached. Looking both ways, W.O. and Miss Susie crossed Missouri Street and headed towards Silver Circle, where the parsonage was located. They had to cross the I.C. & G. railroad tracks to get to their street and, as they neared, WO. suddenly stopped.
Excerpted from Hands on the Railing by Robert Emerson Sylvester. Copyright © 2014 Dr. Robert Emerson Sylvester. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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