Long Branch Pentecostal Holiness Church…
The name is long in our family lore. The church was established by my grandfather in 1911, as were many of the Pentecostal Holiness churches of this area. My father pastored the church for most of the 1960’s, and it is here that I have my earliest memories of church.
The church was small, and our large family made up a sizable bit of the congregation. My father preached and led the singing, and my mother played the piano after Mrs. Annabelle Brown left that position. It was just a tiny, unique country church, but its effect on us was indelible. The place is etched in our memories, and the myths and legends of Long Branch have grown over time, and have been embellished through retelling. So, today, nearly forty years since I last set foot in the church, I decided to see how close those myths were to today’s reality.
I wasn’t sure about service times. There were no listings online, apart from a listing on the Pentecostal Holiness website listing the church as still active. So, I headed down early, in case they had an early service. The community of Long Branch is right off of I-385 near its intersection with I-26. It didn’t take me long to get there from Greenville, and I arrived right about the time Sunday School would have been starting, if it held to the schedule of most churches. I turned from Highway 308 onto Long Branch Church Road and drove up to the church with anticipation…
…only to find no one there. There was a sign that said “Worship – 11 AM”. I decided to try again around 10:30, when people would start to gather. In the meantime, I explored the area a bit.
The original road into town crossed Highway 308 and headed toward Leesville Methodist. A mile or so from the church the road was re-directed to pass under I-385 on a single-lane tunnel that can be quite scary. The interstate bisects two important parts of our family history. On the west side are several open fields, one of which was home to a series of tent revivals held by Mr. N. J. Holmes and my grandfather, O. E. Taylor, which started the pentecostal movement in this area. On the other side of the interstate used to be the old Long Branch School, where my grandmother taught for awhile. Almost all traces of these buildings are long gone.
After driving around the farms of the area, I manage to delay until 10:30. So, I headed back to the church. Still no one there. I was beginning to wonder if anyone would show up.
I drove around some more, this time planning to delay until 10:55. If there wasn’t anyone there by that time, I knew I was out of luck. When I pull into the church yard this time there was one lone pickup truck, and two young boys standing at the side entrance of the church. I figured that even if they weren’t having service I could introduce myself and perhaps get a peak inside the church. The front door was open, so I walked in and met the pastor and his family, along with the owner of the pickup.
It really matters not that the sign says “A place of refuge..” and “Everyone is welcome!” Especially in a small, out-of-the-way place like this the congregation becomes a close-knit group. That group really wants to know why you are there. They may be friendly and welcoming, but they want to know what purpose brought you there, especially if you’re wearing a suit and driving a fancy convertible, as I was. Once I identified myself, though, I was family.
The pastor, Preston Brooks, knew about my grandfather, but didn’t know that my father had pastored the church. Soon, though, one or two others came in, and I was introduced to each. Some of these did know Dad, and commented that I look very much like him. One Linda Brewer had been a Lawson, and remembered our family very well. I just remember going to the Lawson family home for Sunday dinner on occasion, where the Lawsons would put out quite a spread. The piano player (whose name I can’t remember) asked after church if I was kin to O. E. Taylor. When I said that he was my grandfather, she said that she had attended a church where he had pastored.
The inside of the church had changed considerably in the decades since my last visit. There was carpeting, new pews, and fairly recent paint. Nice lighting fixtures replaced the single-bulb dangling fixtures I remember. A popcorn ceiling covered the ravaged tiles that had been there, that fell prey to moisture and even honey bees. The choir loft and even the pulpit had been removed and replaced with piano, guitars and amplifiers, a drum set, and a small lectern.
The 11:00 start of worship turned out to be a very nebulous time. A few more wandered in, bringing the total to about eleven adults, including me and the preacher. By about 11:20 he grabbed a microphone (to me, unnecessary given the size of the church and congregation.) We started by standing for a long opening prayer led by one of the congregation, then stayed standing as the song leader came forward. The pastor headed for the drumset. The guitar and bass sat unused.
We sang three praise choruses from a printed booklet, then turned to the hymnal. These were the exact same hymnals I remembered from forty years ago. I spotted some child-like pencil marks in mine, and wondered if some of these belonged to us. We sang two gospel hymns from this book. Apart from the drums and amplification, the singing was very much like I remembered it to be.
One of the pastor’s grandsons took up the collection. We were seated briefly to get our Bibles, then asked to stand once again for the reading of The Word. I had been away for a long time. This was a place where you were expected to bring your own Bible (apparently KJV here). There were no pew Bibles supplied as one might find in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches I’ve attended lately.
The sermon was full of things that a Christian ought not to do. The pastor reminded us of his time as a “hippy” and that once upon a time “I’d give up my beer, but don’t take away my weed,” and how he had changed. The sermon touched on what the pastor described as the “Pentecostal lifestyle” which meant staying away from the standard list of wordly attractions.
Reverend Brooks was getting more and more wound up, even though it looked very much like his regular flock would never do ANY of the transgressions he listed. I guess it doesn’t hurt to have your convictions re-affirmed, and I heard several “Amens” at key points. However, I was beginning to feel like Lyle Lovette in the song “Church”, where the preacher went on preaching too long. By 12:30 he caught himself and began to wind things down. By 12:45 we were benedicted with a closing prayer that included a bit of speaking in tongues, then sent out.
Well, not quite out. Everyone wanted to come up and ask how my family was doing and to talk. I didn’t mind, and enjoyed the conversation. We chatted a bit about how things had changed, how the church had been expanded structurally, and the various ups and downs of the congregation.
Apparently this was Rev. Brooks’ second stint at Long Branch. He had been here in the late 1990’s, but left. According to him at that time they had almost 85 every Sunday. Many of them went to other churches when he left, and now things had dwindled down to a handful. I mentioned that I had worked at a small church about the size of Long Branch, and understood well the challenges of a small congregation. At that point I realized I’d said too much…
Rev. Brooks asked me what church, and I replied “McCarter Presbyterian.” His response, “Well, I guess there will Presbyterians and other non-Pentecostals in heaven, too,” let me know that I might as well have said I was Mormon, Jewish, or possibly even atheist. I had crossed a line, and it was time to take my leave.
Still, though, it turned out to be a pleasant visit. This current incarnation of Long Branch could easily live up to our family myths. But, then again, so could just about any small country congregation in the South. This is a group of people worshiping in a way that is comfortable to them. It may be unique, and it may be different from the mainstream, but it is no less valid.