Each day Hunter’s Chapel survives is a lifeline to Mary Key, 81. She remembers as a child riding in a wagon along a dirt road to get to the white, clapboard, one-room church building about a mile from her childhood home in Arkansas.
Hunter’s Chapel United Methodist Church is where she, her three children and one of her grandchildren were baptized. And the cemetery next to the church is where, when the time comes, she plans to be buried alongside multiple generations of her family.
Until she had a stroke six years ago, she was the building’s main caretaker. She still looks forward each weekend to going to Sunday school and worship, where her faith and the warm smiles of fellow church members are sources of comfort.
“If it wasn’t for the Lord, I would be alone a lot of the time,” she says. “My husband is hard of hearing, and since my stroke, he does not understand me. Talking to the Lord helps, and I love the people in the church.”
A time for every season
Still, from the oldest to the youngest worshippers, members of the Dallas County churches sense the end is near.
Luke and Cheryl Womack, members of Waverly United Methodist Church along with Luke’s parents, talk about where they will go with their 3-year-old son, Daniel, when the churches close.
Already, Cheryl stays home with Daniel when the weather is cold because the church’s tiny butane heaters are not enough to keep the boy warm. And her son is getting to the age where he needs to be in Sunday school, Cheryl Womack says.
“I trust that God will have his own way of working that out somehow,” she says.
Closing is not necessarily a bad thing, says Grace of the United Methodist Rural Fellowship.
Churches are living organisms, and they all have a life expectancy, he says. He points out that the book of Revelation was addressed to seven churches that no longer exist.
"When a person dies, you celebrate their life and mourn their passing, and life universal goes on," Grace says. "I think the same goes on with the church. When a church dies, you celebrate the good, you mourn their passing, but the church universal goes on."
But many other rural churches look to a brighter future.
In northwestern Ohio, some 850 miles northeast of Tulip United Methodist Church, 10-year-old Ashley Kelley stops her bike in front of the empty building that used to be Belmore United Methodist Church. She surprises the Rev. Tom Graves, who is standing outside, by asking, "My dad wants to know, are you going to reopen this church?"
The answer is no. But within a month, members of a nearby parish are picking up Ashley and some of her friends for worship.
Belmore does not survive. But five other rural churches in this part of Ohio have formed a partnership that is giving each of them new life.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.