- Associated Press - Sunday, March 19, 2017

MISSOURI CITY, Texas (AP) - The lead singer had to be helped to his feet, and he swayed a bit before getting his balance.

The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2m1mGDR ) reports there was nothing feeble in 74-year-old Joe Graves’ voice as he powered through “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” backed by three strong baritones singing a capella.

“The greatest male chorus this side of Highway 6,” said the Rev. Forrest Johnson, one of the backup singers, “is the St. John male chorus.”

The four men accounted for half the congregation of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, founded by freed slaves in 1869 and recognized in February as a Texas historical site. A core group of about eight loyal worshippers has enabled this tiny church, tucked amid thriving suburban developments in fast-growing Fort Bend County, to cling to life since a deliberately set fire in 2006 destroyed part of the building and severely damaged the rest.

To witness a worship service in this battered, historic place is to see faith expressed in its purest form.

The worshippers sing hymns so familiar that they scarcely consult the hymnals, utter appreciative “amens” during the sermon, form a circle and join hands for prayer. Their devotion to these rituals overcomes any discomfort caused by the building’s condition.

With no plumbing, the only restroom options are two portable toilets outside the building or a service station down the road. Power for the makeshift lights scattered around the sanctuary was supplied by a generator until a few years ago, when church members ran extension cords to a utility pole erected by pest exterminators.

The ceiling consists of sheets of plastic tacked to the rafters. On a recent Sunday, with a steady rain falling, Johnson craned his neck and noticed a spot where water was seeping through the roof and pooling atop the plastic.

“We’ll have to get that checked out,” he said.

The Rev. Gerald Rivers and his tiny flock hope the attention attracted by the new historical marker will help them raise money to restore the building and recruit additional members. (Donations can be made in the church’s name at any Wells Fargo bank.) Over the years they have raised enough to make some improvements, but much remains to be done.

“We need to keep the momentum going,” Rivers said during Sunday’s service.

He paused.

“OK, it’s offering time.”

The congregants reached for their wallets and handbags.

Rivers came to St. John in 2012. He was driving on nearby Texas 6 one day, he said, when “the spirit told me to turn left” and he saw the church building with grass growing up around it. A neighbor told him about the church’s history and the fire - the arson has never been solved - and he attended a few services before joining the congregation.

Rivers soon learned that the deed the church holds to the property includes an unusual provision: Unless it is continuously operated as a church, with regular services, it will revert to the heirs of the family that owned the plantation that surrounded it at the time of its founding. It’s an attractive site for potential new development.

Thus the men and women of St. John gather every Sunday not just to worship but to keep their church alive.

During his sermon, Rivers compared the spiritual gifts bestowed by God to the attachments arrayed in a box containing a new vacuum cleaner - one tool designed to reach under furniture, another for crevices in the floor, a third for window blinds.

“Whatever you need,” he said, “it’s in the box.”

Likewise, Rivers explained, the tools to resist temptation or overcome hardship are available if we simply reach for them: “If you need something to help you stop sinning, it’s in the box.”

With this analogy in mind, turn on your television any Sunday morning and you’ll see thousands of worshippers gathered in one of the area’s megachurches, swaying to music booming from state-of-the-art sound systems and watching images on giant screens.

These luxuries are beyond the reach of the handful of men and women of St. John, who have kept their wounded house of worship alive for more than a decade through the sheer force of their devotion. Yet they don’t appear to feel neglected. Their faith assures them everything they need is in the box.

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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