The Cloud of Witnesses: A Reminder to Tell the Story

By Sarah Lowther Hensley

Three-year-old Jordan makes a bee-line to a first-time visitor and offers a warm hug of welcome. Three-year-old Jordan is already gifted at offering hospitality.

It’s a move that undoubtedly meets with approval from the Cloud of Witnesses at Trinity United Methodist Church in Fairmont, West Virginia.

Trinity marked its 145th anniversary this month and its Cloud of Witnesses was palpable as church members and guests proclaimed the anniversary theme: “God is Not Dead!”

God’s not dead and neither is Trinity’s spirit and tradition of faith, service, family and leadership.

Trinity traces its beginning to 1869, just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation, with the formation of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church for Negroes. Its present day church building came later – in 1911. Trinity United Methodist Church in Fairmont, West Virginia

Its members have ministered and witnessed through the early post-slavery days, the Great Depression, segregation, the Civil Rights struggle and on into the new millennium. Its name changed over the years to reflect the various eras of Methodist church structure and organization. At one time it, along with all African American Methodist congregations, was part of the “Central Jurisdiction” rather than the more geographically-oriented West Virginia Annual Conference. It became part of the West Virginia conference in 1965, after changes to Methodist structure. (For more about this period of Methodist history, click here.)

This Was High Church

Charlotte Meade traces her connection to the church back to her great-grandfather, one of Trinity’s founders.  She remembers growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s in a strong, vibrant congregation – one that celebrated high church with a processing choir, trained acolytes, and “one of the best organists in the state.”  There was a solid Sunday School program, active youth group, and sense of connection.

“You looked forward to Sundays,” says Meade. She remembers people generally walked to and from church in those days, taking time to visit and window shop on their way home.

Meade also recalls a strong tradition of nurturing future leaders.

“We were trained for leadership in the church,” says Meade. “That was strong. Particularly for the young people.”

Trinity has fewer members today than it used to and is now part of a two-point charge. But it has not lost its essence.  Even a first-time visitor can sense it. At Trinity, you are family. Whether your ancestors were among those who started the congregation just after the Emancipation Proclamation or you are a newcomer from the apartment high rise across the street.Members of the Trinity UMC congregation visit after worship.

Jordan’s warm welcome, the tempting smell of breakfast casseroles wafting up into the sanctuary, and the bright sound of greetings and laughter mark the beginning of Trinity’s anniversary celebration and hint at a vibrant church family.

“We belong to it,” says Meade. “And in some ways we feel a responsibility to keep it going as long as we can.”

Remember the Rocks

A basket of rocks holds a place of honor next to the altar. Each rock represents a member of Trinity’s Cloud of Witnesses. New rocks are added each year during the October anniversary celebration.

Rocks at the altar represent members of Trinity UMC's Cloud of Witnesses.

Rev. Junius Lewis, the guest preacher for this morning’s anniversary worship service, has never been to Trinity before today and he didn’t know about the basket of rocks. But they serve as an unplanned illustration for his sermon about the Israelites crossing the Jordan.

When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”

So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” – Joshua 4:1-7 NIV

Lewis takes a rock from the basket next to the altar and holds it up to the congregation. This church stands, he says, because people prayed, and struggled and sacrificed. They put their faith and hope and trust in Christ.

When the children ask what these stones mean, he says, tell them things will be all right. As it was for Joshua and the Israelites once they stepped into the Jordan, things will be all right for Trinity when members “get in it” – taking their faith and witness into the community, the schools and the workplaces.

The message? Keep sharing the story. Pass it on from generation to generation. Celebrate the past, serve the present and trust in the future.

God is not dead.

The Circle

Trinity’s members are comfortable sharing the story and their stories. During morning worship, those who are able stand and create a circle around the sanctuary. In an unhurried and patient fashion, many of them share prayer concerns and praises. One voice at a time. Sometimes simply naming a name, sometimes offering more details, they share their stories and then pray together.

A banner hangs near the front of the Trinity UMC sanctuary . "So Great a Cloud of Witnesses."Royce Lyden is in that circle. She and her family have been part of Trinity for generations.

“Over the years our congregation has decreased in size,” she says. “But what that did was provided leadership opportunity and training for members of the church. Sometimes my kids used to come to church and say, ‘well I wonder what we’re going to have to do today. Are we going to take up the offering or sweep the walk or will we have to give the sermon?’”

Lyden and others have served in leadership roles at Trinity and beyond, up to and including serving as members of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

She values the leadership training she received as part of the Trinity family, and wants to see that opportunity continue for future generations. There is not a strong Sunday School program currently, but young people are intentionally included and empowered within the congregation. Youth and young adults played key and visible roles during the anniversary celebrations.

Crossroads

The church sits at a crossroads – literally and figuratively.  Just steps away from a busy intersection, the church is perched on a small patch of ground with no parking or room for expansion. Upkeep of the building has become a challenge and it is not handicap accessible.

Both Meade and Lyden say the congregation is prayerfully considering the future.

“My vision and hope for Trinity is that we can continue to live out the vision of the United Methodist Church which is to make disciples,” says Lyden. “And that somehow our young people grasp and understand that vision and continue to help the congregation live on in one form or another, whether it be in this congregation or another congregation or this congregation in another building. I just think that God still has work for us to do.” The congregation of Trinity United Methodist Church and visitors celebrating the church's 145 years of ministry.

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