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With the afternoon sun beaming down, Lonzie Bryant stood outside Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church and basked in the warmth and history.
The 62-year-old church trustee can recall his childhood, when a more primitive structure preceded the two-story brick church building in the African-American community on Cedar Grove Road.
He remembers homemade pews, no central heat in winter and no air conditioning or fans in summer, when windows were lifted to let some air in.
“Most people came to church with a mule and cart,” he said.
Before that, there was no church building at all. The congregation gathered under a large cedar “meeting tree,” its remains now preserved in a brick building in a side churchyard.
“They got together and formed their own church,” Bryant recalled.
He remembers baptisms in a seemingly bottomless pond, said to be inhabited by snakes.
The spirit must have been moving, because “no one, as far as I know, was ever bitten,” Bryant said. “My dad told me there were alligators in it, also.”
Males of the church used to try to dive down and touch the bottom of the outdoor baptismal pool.
“And, of course, they couldn’t do it,” he said.
It’s just one of many snippets of the past recalled by one of many lifelong members of the historic church, which will observe its 139th anniversary March 13th.
Family also permeates African-American churches dotting the landscape in Brunswick County.
Strolling recently through a cemetery behind Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Longwood community, David Brown pointed out familiar gravestones.
“All that’s my family,” he said—his dad, Walter Brown, in addition to three brothers, his maternal grandparents (the Gores), uncles, three aunts and two nephews.
“To tell you the truth, just about all these people out here are my kin people,” said Brown, who grew up third oldest in a family of 11 children.
Since the church’s founding in 1886, the names of other families for whom the cemetery has become a resting place include Butler, Stanley, Stevenson, Daniels and Middleton.
Brown pointed out the grave of Larry Dean Daniels, a local soldier who was killed in Vietnam in 1968. His oldest brother, Woody Lee, was another Vietnam soldier who was buried here, too, in 1975.
“I don’t know what in the world they did to those people in Vietnam, but he came back not right,” Brown said. “He got sick and died of double pneumonia on the brain.”
Brown, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, said he grew up in the church. Now, his children go there, too.
In the African-American community, church isn’t just about God and family. Historically, it also has served as the centerpiece of the community, said the Rev. Douglas Moss, pastor of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church near Calabash.
“In the slave days, in trying to escape slavery, church was the vital meeting place to gain strength and mobility,” Moss said as he oversaw a recent Wednesday night youth choir rehearsal in the church sanctuary on U.S. 17.
That tradition has continued through generations of families who still congregate here, with Gause, Frink, Marlow, Stanley, Hill, Jenrette, Berkeley, McCray and Bellamy among predominant names.
Leading an impromptu tour through the church’s education wing added a year and a half ago, Moss said the church continues to grow with more activities for its youth and a food bank. Members are next looking forward to starting a senior citizen program, he said.
“We have a lot of things in mind,” he said. “We’re doing it in phases and as God directs us.”