Today in my prayers, Psalm 137 popped up:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
Of course, this Psalm was written during the Babylonian captivity, when things were not looking so good for the Israelites. But this week, the name “Zion” has a special meaning for me.
Last week, the Rev. Rick Callaway, Canon to the Ordinary in the Bishop’s Office, asked me to meet him over in Talbotton. What’s in Talbotton, you might ask? Only the oldest existing building in the Diocese of Atlanta! Zion Episcopal Church was built in 1848, and by the grace of God and the hands of some extremely faithful people, still stands today.
However, there has not been a regular, sustainable congregation at Zion since the early part of the 20th Century. Despite numerous attempts to hold regular worship services, Zion has stood in the center of Talbotton with nothing more than it’s history holding it up. I’m still piecing the history of Zion together, but from what I have heard, Zion was a bigger congregation than Trinity Episcopal in Columbus back in it’s hey-day of the 1850s and 1860s. Talbotton was a busier town too, and over the years, the decline of that small, southern town has been reflected in Zion.
The Rev. Charlie Roper, rector of St. Thomas, used to hold regular worship services in the ’80s and ’90s, and the Rev. Bill McLemore, along with Jesse and Betty Collins, two outstanding lay people who did an amazing amount of restoration on the building, held regular services in the early part of this decade. However, due to Jesse’s death and Fr. McLemore’s retirement, Zion has been empty with no movement at all in a little over a year.
Since that time, the largest congregation consists of bats.
So Rick invited me to Zion to show me around. There, I met Betty Collins, who is a delightful and faithful person. She has kept all of Zion’s things during this hiatus, but was ready to turn everything over. We walked in and were immediately met by a beautiful cross, highlighted by track lighting that Jessie installed. Once you enter the nave, you are instantly transported back in time. Zion is absolutely gorgeous, despite the guano covering the floor. The pews have those little gates on them, there’s a gigantic chandelier, and there’s even a balcony, where slaves once sat during worship.
If it’s possible to be both disgusted by the filth and awed by the physical beauty of a place, then that’s how I felt. It was breathtaking in both senses.
After talking a while with Betty, and the Rev. Matthew Grunfield, who was the last priest to hold a service there when Jesse died, Rick pulled me aside and asked if I would be interested in keeping up with all the things that Betty had been keeping. As the closest priest to Zion, it only made sense rather than toting all of the prayer books, altar linens, and other church wares up to Atlanta. I gladly accepted the role, and learned that Rick wanted me to be a steward of Zion until the Bishop decides what to do with it. There are some ideas brewing, but they are in the discernment mode as of right now.
What Zion needs right now is some regular yard work, which the Diocese will pay for, and some cleaning on the inside. After sharing with the Vestry and later the congregation, there is some real interest in working on Zion. To that end, I am planning on being at Zion at 10:00am on Saturday, August 7 to give a tour to anyone who might be interested in seeing it. I don’t expect us to do any work at this point, but we can make some plans if folks wish.
Zion will probably never sustain a “traditional” congregation, but that doesn’t mean that there is not ministry to be done there. There are a number of poor people in the area of Zion that may appreciate some effort of help from the Episcopal Church. Zion may be a center for such kind of work. Again, all of this is in the discernment stage, but we can certainly dream about what God has in store for Zion.
I was humbled and honored to be asked to watch over Zion’s things. I received the boxes of prayer books and linens, most of which are new donations from the Collins family. But I was shocked when I received three important things: the original 1849 Bible, the original 1850 Book of Common Prayer, and the original big ol’ key to the building.
So we’ll see what God has in store for Zion. Maybe before long, we will get to worship and do God’s mission from that beautiful and historic place. Until that time, keep Zion in your prayers as we engage in giving it the love it truly deserves.