I was baptized in the Rappahannock River in the summer of 1961. My older siblings, I and quite a few of our friends from the ridge had turned our lives over to Christ at Providence Baptist Church in Remington, Virginia, only a few weeks earlier. I wasn’t even ten years old at the time and was quite reluctant about going up when the altar call was made during homecoming revival. I’ve told the much exaggerated story, once or twice, that I was so scared when my brother and sister tried to talk me into walking up to the altar with them, that to help me make up my mind, one of them pinched me so hard I jumped up out of my seat and when I landed I found myself at the pulpit standing directly in front of Rev. Tyler. But no matter how I arrived there, I couldn’t turn around then, not with the matriarch of the church, Miss Chaney, sitting right there in the aisle seat of the second row staring at me. I remember Deacon Earl Moore taking me aside and giving me a good talking to. Satisfied by my answers to his question if I was ready to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior, he turned to the pastor and nodded his head. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Homecoming anniversary at Providence was always one of my favorite memories. Only we didn’t call it homecoming when we spoke of it among ourselves, we always called it “Third Sunday in August”. Much of our entire church year revolved around the events and activities related to the third Sunday in August. Who was going to speak? Who was going to sing? And most importantly, what foods were going to be served between the morning and the evening services and who was responsible for preparing which dishes. Back then we didn’t have a dining room, so they improvised. There were four or five large oak trees that stood on the pastor’s study side of the church. Someone came up with the bright idea to use those trees as the serving area whenever meals were served.
Long boards were constructed and used as tables, and those tables connected all the trees into a square. The ladies of the church, or Ladies Auxiliary, worked inside of the squared circle of trees preparing and serving the meals while church members and visitors lined up on the outside of the circle, waiting to be served a delicious meal. Those meals always included the best fried chicken and potato salad, arguably on the east coast. Once served it was every man for himself when it came to finding a prime location to sit and enjoy your meal. Visitors had the luxury, or disdain of sitting in their cars, their hot cars. While members usually took time to go home and change clothes for evening service or freshen up before returning to eat.
The ladies of the church spent hours preparing chicken, ham, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, desserts and much more. While the morning service was in full swing, the women would work feverishly setting up for dinner. The dinner was a precursor to the afternoon service, when a prominent guess speaker and choir, that had been advertised as coming for weeks in advance, would offer old timey gospel songs and a heart throbbing, fire and brimstone message that was sure to be talked about for weeks to come. Every one of those ladies were great cooks in their own rite, some famous for their potato salad, others for their fried chicken, others for their dessert. Of course, I thought my mother’s fried chicken and potato salad was the best on the planet (then and now). And I wouldn’t want to slight anyone by naming names, or by not naming names. BUT, one of my favorite memories is the combination of punch and vanilla wafers provided by Mrs. Ada Hardnett. She brought them to both church and school functions. I would go so far as to brave PTA meetings if I knew that her cookies and punch were going to be served. I’ve tried, but so far I’ve been unable to duplicate that childhood delicacy.
Many of our lives revolved around Providence back then, I spent many a Wednesday nights entertaining myself on a back row pew while the church elders conducted church meetings and many a morning in Vacation Bible School during Summer break. Yes, those were the days. I haven’t been back to the church of my childhood in a while, but I know that Providence Baptist is still going strong, still gathering at the river and still celebrating third Sunday in August just as fervently as we did way back in the day.