By RAHN ADAMS
MORGANTON, N.C. (Nov. 27, 2019) – This past Sunday evening, I ran the sound for my favorite religious service of the whole year, hands down—Morganton’s community Thanksgiving service.
Ran the sound. That means I pushed some buttons to turn on and turn off—unmute and mute, in sound guy lingo—several microphones around the chancel of the First United Methodist Church, specifically, at the pulpit, above the choir, and at the grand piano on the floor in front of the lectern. What I did was nothing special. The service started at 5 p.m. and lasted about an hour, not counting the reception afterwards.
As I’ve said in the past, First Methodist is a special church to Timberley and me. It’s her home church, where she and I were married 37 years ago today. That Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m., our families and friends gathered to hear us exchange our vows in that beautiful gray-stone church, the closest thing to an old-style cathedral in Morganton. I’ve been a member since 1982; Timberley, since she was a child.
For the first few years we were married, Timberley and I regularly attended church there before moving to Brunswick County on the North Carolina coast. We returned to First Methodist about 10 years ago when we started spending more time in Morganton, though our permanent residence remains in Boone. Over the years, we visited many other churches but never found another congregation quite as special.
And we’ve been active members at First Methodist, not just ordinary congregants who show up on the occasional Sunday morning to worship with other like-minded believers—or to drink coffee and eat powdered donuts before the service. Among other things, Timberley has sung in the choir and served on a couple of church committees. I’ve run the sound, played my trombone for special occasions, and even tried—that’s the key word—tried to sing bass in the choir when more male singers were needed.
On that Saturday evening exactly 37 years ago today, I remember standing next to my preacher father, who officiated our ceremony, as FUMC music director Bibba Whitener played the bridal chorus from the Wagnerian opera Lohengrin on First Methodist’s grand pipe organ while Timberley and her father slowly processed down the long center aisle to where her matron of honor and bridesmaids, my best man and ushers, the flower girl, the ring bearer, the preacher and I waited at the foot of the chancel.
Timberley looked beautiful in her white gown and veil. With one lacy hand on her father’s black sleeve and her other hand holding a bouquet of white carnations and yellow rosebuds, my bride was almost as ravishing that evening as she is today. I could see she was scared, hopefully only about navigating that long aisle on high heels. We men wore red carnations as boutonnières on our simple black tuxedos.
Back then, I must not have had a brain in my head—not because I married Timberley, as that was the best decision I’ve ever made, but because I never worried about little details, like what flower to wear on my lapel in probably the single most important photograph of my life. I have no idea where that red carnation came from. If I could do it over, I’d choose a white gardenia or yellow rosebud for my lapel, despite the added expense.
A yellow rosebud would have been appropriate symbolically and also would have matched the bridal bouquet. According to several flower websites, yellow roses stand for friendship, joy and caring—all reciprocal elements of our brief courtship and long marriage. Our first real date was to a Spongetones concert at P.B. Scott’s Music Hall in Blowing Rock in July 1981. I popped the question on Valentine’s Day 1982 at Johnny Barron’s old Stone House Restaurant in Morganton. We so miss that classy place — both of those places, actually.
Of course, those yellow rosebuds in Timberley’s bouquet did cause our first argument as a married couple and in public, right there in the church after saying our I do’s. As we started back up the aisle, Timberley paused by my mother in a front pew and plucked a rosebud from her bouquet. As she leaned down and handed Mom the rosebud, I said to myself, Aw, now isn’t that sweet. Then my bride plucked another bud and handed it to me. So, so sweet, I thought again and whispered, “Thanks.” But her look and the way she nodded toward her mother across the aisle didn’t exactly say “You’re welcome” back.
“What?” I asked, a bit perplexed. I heard a few giggles and one snort.
“The rose,” she said, nodding again toward my brand-new mother-in-law. “Give it to her.”
Ah-ha, yes, I see. “Sorry,” I whispered, completing my first lessons in marital mind reading (D-) and in husband apologetics (B+). According to my bride, the matron of honor had said, “Oh, don’t worry. He’ll figure it out,” when Timberley asked if I should be informed of the impromptu detour up the aisle. But at least we eventually made it out the church door, into the back seat of the dark sedan chauffeured by my best buddy, and up the road to Blowing Rock’s Green Park Inn. The honeymoon was short because neither of us could afford to miss much work, and, in fact, we both were back on the job that Tuesday.
We’d originally wanted to marry over Easter weekend the next spring; however, the minister then at First Methodist told us that weddings absolutely could not be held at FUMC that particular weekend, and so we moved ours up to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a small, inexpensive affair because, for various reasons, we had to pay for it ourselves, and we weren’t rich by any monetary measure. In fact, we were poor. I was a stock clerk at Morganton Hardware. Timberley, a recent college graduate with student-loan debt, was in her first real job, one she lost a few months later.
It was a radio sales position at Hickory’s Channel One Country, owned by an eccentric old guy whose aging trophy wife didn’t want young women working at the station. It’s good that I didn’t get too upset over it, because a few years later I was fired from my own radio job under wacky circumstances. That’s the radio biz, I guess. But Timberley lost that first job around the time we’d wanted to be married—the Saturday before Easter, when weddings weren’t to be held at FUMC. That somehow didn’t apply to the two couples who scheduled their nuptials for that very day after we’d been refused. That’s nothing new.
Whether at home, school, work or church, we’re both used to being taken for granted by others, though not by each other (after The Rosebud Incident, that is). In each of those settings, we have encountered other people who have done less good than we have for the particular institution but whose influences were so much greater than ours. Maybe nice guys do always finish last. Or maybe the squeaky wheel does get the grease. Or maybe it’s just easier to disappoint poor folks than to piss off privileged people.
I know how that last maybe sounds, and I know it isn’t always that clear cut. But often it’s true. Often it’s the only reason that makes sense. Can I tell the truth? Will anybody testify? (If so, comment below.)
Those were two questions that the preacher used a number of times to punctuate his sermon during the community Thanksgiving service Sunday evening, as he recounted indignities of growing up poor and black in Burke County during the 1950s and early 1960s before racial desegregation. He told of having to ride in the back of the county bus or of standing when a white person needed a seat. He told of using takeout windows or alley doors at whites-only restaurants in Morganton. He told of having to use a side door to go sit in the balcony at the Mimosa Theater. He told of having to use raggedy, marked-up books from the white school at his black school before integration. And he told of winning a vocational award at the newly integrated Glen Alpine High School, only to be called the N-word by his white instructor.
“Can I tell the truth?” he shouted into the pulpit mic. “Will anybody testify?” His voice echoed off the grayish-brown bricks of the high back wall rising toward the bell tower. African American worshipers who sat here and there among the gathering raised their hands to testify to the preacher’s truth. I would never try to speak for the white people there who were the overwhelming majority of the congregation, but what I heard made me uncomfortable, especially the last anecdote about the white teacher’s bigotry.
But I decided that I needed to feel uncomfortable about racism, without equivocation, and that I needed to feel embarrassed about the way my neighbors were treated then and are sometimes still treated now.
Unlike our wedding 37 years ago, the large, cruciform sanctuary was packed this past Sunday evening, mainly by white people like me, as I said. But the pews in the north transept were filled entirely by the Freedom High School Chamber Singers, a group of about 30 teenagers who appeared to be a true racial cross-section of our community, with white, black, Latinx and Asian American members. And when the young singers took their places on the chancel steps during the service and raised their beautiful voices to the white vaulted ceiling, the sanctuary was filled with gloriously sacred sounds. Not one ohm of the sound system’s amplification was used or needed. This sound man heard the echo of God in that room.
During our wedding ceremony, Timberley’s dad, Nat Gilliam, ably sang “The Lord’s Prayer” to Mrs. Whitener’s organ accompaniment. Though he was in the church choir, I’d never heard him sing a solo—well, nothing other than snatches of Frank Sinatra tunes around the house. So I was suitably impressed when his tenor voice, again unamplified, rose, fell, swelled and held at all the right places in the sacred song. When we raised our bowed heads and looked at each other again, I saw that Timberley had shed a tear, hopefully over the beauty of her father’s offering, not the realization that her single days were almost over.
This past Sunday evening, the Rev. Willette McIntosh opened the special Thanksgiving service at the grand piano without a proper sound check beforehand, an oversight on my part that usually ends with either ear-splitting feedback or, at best, several seconds of silence. So you’ll understand why this sound man lifted up a silent prayer of thanks when the breath of God whispered the opening lines of Psalm 27 into the vocal microphone at her lips and could be clearly heard in every corner of that cross-shaped room. I’m not ashamed to testify that Willette’s singing, again, brought a tear to my eyes, this time through her slow, soulful rendition of Andraé Crouch’s “The Lord Is My Light, Whom Shall I Fear?”
I’ll say it again. Morganton’s community Thanksgiving service is, hands down, my favorite religious celebration of the whole year. It’s the yellow rosebud of friendship, joy and caring in our typical but special Southern small town, as far as holiday gatherings go. And this year it was extra special, at an extra special time, in an extra special place, with a roomful of extra special people—a big ol’ family.
Now, with both hands raised, I do testify that’s the whole truth, so help me, God. Amen.