Posts Tagged ‘ Freewill ’

First Freewill Baptist Church of Clover – 10/30/11

The largest surviving building in Clover, South Carolina is the American Thread warehouse.  Sprawled along the eastern shoulder of Highway 321, the warehouse towers over the one- and two-story buildings of the tiny semirural town, broken windows gaping at passersby, its ring of rusted chain link fence sagging on its poles.  Half the warehouse facility was bulldozed years ago, and the remnant is a standing shell.  The cedar-log floors that once divided the warehouse’s vast interior were stripped out and sold to a Chinese lumber firm, leaving a yawning void within its walls.

The First Freewill Baptist Church of Clover stands two or three blocks from the edge of the old American Thread property. The surrounding neighborhoods are a mixture of older homes and newer doublewide trailers, converted for permanent occupation.  Founded in 1950, the Clover Freewill building (its second) is a simple piece of architecture, a brick rectangle crowned at one end by a tall white steeple.  Within, most of its space is taken by the sanctuary: a long hall set with two rows of pews and lined with tall, narrow windows of yellow-stained glass.  On the morning October 30, sunlight shining in through the eastern windows took on a warm, golden glow.

At the end of the hall a small stage rises, set with an altar, pulpit, grand piano and choir loft.  By the time the service began at 11AM the pews were about two-thirds full, and the choir loft packed with over twenty people.  The congregation of Clover Freewill is substantial, with well over a hundred persons present at the time of Churchspotting’s visit.

They ranged a spectrum of ages, from very young to elderly, with most in solid young adulthood or middle age.  Some came in collared shirts and ties, or dresses; others in t-shirts and jeans, their choice of dress owing more to personal preference and economic circumstances than any particular rules of decorum.

The service began, as many other Churchspotting-observed services have, with song.  The music Clover Freewill’s overstuffed choir loft made was a rambunctious, country Gospel sound of largely untrained, yet enthusiastic, voices accompanied by guitar and tambourine.  In Freewill Baptist churches there is no fixed choir.  Anyone who wishes can take the stage and join the song, though a few skilled singers did dominate the morning’s proceedings.

After a cycle of songs Clover Freewill’s pastor, Marvin Carson, took the stage.  Carson is an old, heavyset man in the midst of his thirty-seventh year presiding over his church.  The only person in the congregation in a full suit and tie, the fury and passion with which he preaches belies his age.  He did not begin the day’s service at full fire, though—first he and the church elders covered the preliminaries, mentioning members of the congregation who were out sick, or who were just returned from absence.  The opening announcements concluded with communal prayer during which some simply bowed their heads in silence, some mumbled quietly, and some called out in raised voice to the heavens.  Like participation in the choir, one’s method of prayer at Clover Freewill is a matter of personal preference.

After a few songs from duets and trios of singers accompanied by piano and guitar, Carson took the pulpit again and began to preach.  The subject of that morning’s sermon was trust in God during times of trouble as exemplified in Exodus, the Biblical story of the ancient Hebrews’ departure from Egypt.  Carson called on his congregation to trust in prayer and the hope of God’s intervention in their lives, and for patience in waiting for that intervention.

Though he began softly, when Carson founds his rhythm his tone became a shout, and he moved with an ecstatic vigor.  At moments of high passion he pace\d down the sanctuary’s aisle, thundering and gesticulating, as men in the congregation complimented his sermon with shouts of “Amen!”  He maintained this pitch for more than half an hour, well past the point where most would be left hoarse and breathless.

Eventually, of course, that morning’s sermon came to a close.  With the preaching done Carson called up any who wished to be blessed against their ailments, and these knelt before the pulpit and were anointed with oil.  The congregation said its last prayer, church elders read out announcements of coming events, and at around 12:30 PM that morning’s service at First Freewill Baptist Church of Clover ended.

After the service I conducted a brief interview with Rev. Carson.  Ordained in 1973, Carson spent seven years as an itinerant evangelist before settling in to Clover Freewill, where he has pastored ever since.  A manual laborer before he became a minister, Carson has never attended a university.  In his 37 years at Clover Freewill he has mentored a total of 40 Baptist ministers, many of whom went on to found other churches in the area, six of whom evangelize in the region while affiliated with Clover Freewill.

In his time as a pastor Carson watched as Clover’s textile industry melted away, and the Clover Thread building went from a storehouse of goods to an empty shell.  Job opportunities are few in Clover, he said.  Some men of his congregation make the two-hour drive to Greensboro, NC twice daily to work, while some of the few who can find local jobs are employed tearing down the recently closed Bowling Green textile mill, a few miles north on Highway 321.

On the topic of charitable works, he said Clover Freewill supports local rest homes for the elderly, and works together with neighboring churches to stage revivals and expositions of Gospel music.  Finally, on the relationship between Church and State, Carson said, “the church was always supposed to be separated, and that’s how I believe it should be.”