Smallest Church in America

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Good Things Do Come in Tiny Packages
The Smallest Church in America
By Jacob Cottingham

 

 

 

As an ever increasing number of megachurches continue to spring up across this Great Christian Nation of ours, it can be refreshing to see a little restraint, humility even, in the face of God. I’ve been to a church that has jumbotrons plural, and have sometimes felt the creeping wonderment that the flock was a little too full. For those who may not be impressed by a hot tub baptismal fount or rock and roll revivalism, the non-denominational “Smallest Church In America” may be your spiritual headquarters.

Nestled off the highway and tucked behind a small sandy circular drive, the smallest church seats, in theory, 12 parishioners and a pastor. A mere 15 feet long by ten feet wide, such a crowd would make mouthwash mandatory for all. Outside the church entrance stands a small, miniature-looking bell tower roughly 12 feet tall with a little bronze plate dating it to 1998. However, the church itself, the brainchild of Ms. Agnes Harper, is much older, having been completed in 1949.

Located about an hour south of Savannah on exit 67 off Highway 95, “America’s Smallest Church” is easy to miss amidst the blue highway signs advertising fast food and petroleum. But the observant traveler will note a handmade sign hidden behind a drooping tree branch, directing travelers to exit at the nearest ramp for “America’s Smallest Church.” If you are driving south on 95 you’ll want to take a left at the bottom of the exit. The smallest church is a short drive past the gas stations, pit barbeque and fishing reserve, about a mile south on Coastal Highway 17.

Opening the never-locked door to the smallest church, the first thing that strikes me is the burst of light flooding the small room. However, this revelatory experience quickly proves itself to be human ingenuity rather than divine guidance. Someone has rigged a small, conducting piece of metal to the top of the door, presumably re-routing the electric signal when opened, which illuminates a small three-bulb chandelier hanging effectively in the mediating space between the pulpit and assembled. The flecks of sandy mud on the floor are a dirty testament to the traffic of this tiny conclave.

Pairs of wooden chairs form three rows on either side of the abbreviated aisle, each chair with a built in wooden slot for hymnals and a cute, fold-down pew that tucks gently underneath each of the sturdy seats. On this rainy afternoon, the room has a slightly cramped, musty feel to it. The Smallest Church pamphlets state that this is “Where Folks Rub Elbows With God” but today, it feels more like rubbing the sweaty chest-hair of God. A small frog croaks his consent on the windowsill above the entrance. The simple wooden planks that form the peaked ceiling allow for the sounds of rain to filter in with chirping of birds.

Despite this the space is filled with the warmth of sincerity, a quality that feels in high demand in this era of Christian Real Estate junk emails and political preaching. It is as though the heat trapped within the confines is mimicking the overbearing comfort of a higher power. In such a small area, where one’s body takes up so much space, it is powerful to still feel so miniscule. The walls don’t shut out the wooded world around the church, but seem to focus the natural energy through the hand-hewn planks.

The pulpit is made of unpainted wood with a simple cross adorning the front. To the side of the pulpit is a slot, built into the wall, soliciting donations. Underneath the powerful lock holding this collection deposit closed is a saddening note with the hollow warning “Do not cut lock.” Underneath this script, and to the side of the lettering are handwritten notes with such sentiments as “You will go to hell” or “You’re stealing from God.” For a brief moment the church loses it’s innocence and I realize that the small, sheltered chapel is a particularly vulnerable target. Yet, even this weakness seems to bolster the strength of the little building, whose existence continues on despite thieves, storms and potential vandals.

A step down from the pulpit area, and on the right hand side of the church is a binder full of notebook paper, which serves as a guestbook/prayerbook/spirtual diary of sorts. There are pages and pages of entries, some dutifully constrained to a single line, stating merely the visiting party, date and hometown. Others are less focused or more religious, such as the somewhat mangled scripture, “God so love the world he die on the Cross for all of us I should love Him” to the bubbly handwriting stating, “Kelsey Paine was here hangin out in the smallest church in America!” to the more sentimental “No church is to small to learn about God.”

The Smallest Church is technically not the smallest in America, although it certainly ranks in the top five. Ms. Harper was a widowed grocer of modest means when she decided to build a church for those in the area. At the time, it was thought such meager funds would not do justice to the magnificence of the Lord. But Ms. Harper persevered, deeding the title of the church to one, “Jesus Christ.” A crotchety old Xavarian Brother I know is fond of saying “God is in the details,” and there are more than a few in this one.

The Smallest Church is full of little dedications, and small, private glimpses into personal relationships lurk all over the room. Behind the pulpit is a small plaque dedicating the building to “the glory of God and for all who pass this way in loving memory of their parents.” On a bulletin board, tacked up with several scraps of handwritten notes is written, “I love you mom and I am always thinking about you. Love always, your son, Lil’ Man.” A hand drawn heart on the margin has “Bless You” inscribed in the middle. The nickname Lil’ Man seems a blanket term for all sons who will remain their mother’s baby despite the man they grow into.

More personal mementos dot the nooks and crannies of this non-denominational church. By the aforementioned plaque rest inexplicably two beanie babies, and the windowsill behind the pulpit is decorated with an assortment of figurines depicting the Mother Mary. A card with a black and white photo of a little girl reads “Manilia Victoria Aali Hamilton May God’s Light shine for eternity.”

The church is also available to use for special ceremonies, such as baptisms and weddings. Earlier this Spring, Beverley and Bernie Goode, residents of Tybee Island, took their vows at the Smallest Church. Said Bernie, of their decision to hold the ceremony in such a limiting space, “It was such a cute little church. We wanted something very small and we didn’t want to have to invite all the people we know. So if we had that small church we could limit it to our children…It worked out good.” Beverly chimed in, “It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. The church was wonderful and everyone was accommodated.” Everyone includes the 21 family members who jammed into the 12-seat church like a 50’s phone booth contest. Beverly clarified, “They stood up. It was really tight.”

The ceremony was presided over by Bernie’s priest, who made the trek down for the 15-minute brief nuptials. The couple was delighted at the ease with which the arrangements were made. “It was hassle free,” said Beverly, who noted that although the cost of using the space is free, “There’s a donation box and you can leave what you feel it’s worth.” As a final touch, the Goode’s grandchildren served as ring bearers, which wasn’t without its comic element. Bernie chuckled, “We had them in the last row so that they would at least have 10 feet to walk down.” Beverly concluded, “The day couldn’t have been better.”

The understated spirituality of the smallest church is difficult to put into words, but a bronze plate slipped into the background of the chapel makes a good run at it. “I came to this place in search of inner peace and found it. I heard, what could only be, the wings of the Angel of God. I felt them brush by me and was filed with the peace and comfort of the Lord. I will no longer doubt his presence in our time. This is a special place.”
The caretaker of the Smallest Church is Effie Gray Young. She can be reached at: 912-223-0370.
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photos by Jenn Alexander

 

 

 

 

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