Today, I’m writing about a particular place. Right now it’s only in my memory, but every corner of that place still breathes and echoes inside me. It’s a place I grew up in, surrounded by loving people and many things I didn’t (and still don’t) understand; Pearl Street Pentecostal Church, Elizabeth City, NC. It was the church of my Grandma Hobbs and her family, the Boyces and Coopers.
I can still see the layout of the church, the high ceiling with lamps on rods descending downward, arched windows with panes of colored glass, the choir off to the left with the piano (played by my mother), and the organ in front (played by Tinks Toler), and the amen corner off to the right. And I guess I’m a traditionalist, but the music back then was glorious; sometimes filled with hellfire and brimstone, but also filled with old jazz and poetry: When the roll is called up yonder, Victory in Jesus, Just a closer walk with thee, At Calvary, Rock of ages, Power in the blood, The old rugged cross, Standing on the promises…
A long altar ran along the front of the pulpit and was decorated with purple cloth. The ministers that I recall were named Preacher Miller (he’s the one who presided over the marriage of my mother and father; a severe looking, soft-spoken man with a receding hairline), Preacher Davis (a man with large-frame glasses and a marvelous full head of white hair who always seemed to have a smile on his face and a penchant for baby blue suits), and Preacher Mock (the youngest of the three who was razor thin, had curly hair and a pencil mustache). Preacher Mock always ended his sermons with a question: “are all hearts and minds free and clear?” Then he would ask someone to say the benediction and hurry down from the pulpit to the front vestibule to shake hands with the congregation as they exited. I loved hearing those words because it meant that we children could get outside and play, jumping off the steps (which seemed higher than a mountain to us) and playing tag, unless the preacher made the mistake of asking Mr. Dwight Sylvester to say the benediction…he went on forever and ever!
I remember one time Preacher Mock took me up into that pulpit and showed me how the design of that building was at an angle; if you stood in front of the pulpit it faced slightly to the right, not center, and he told me it took some getting used to for him to learn to preach to the left side of the church as well as the right. I always sat to his left, and some of you may find that quite telling; maybe those sermons never quite hit their mark with me.
The sermons were often long, and in summer the heat was unbearable, but the men kept their suit jackets and ties on. When a breeze passed through the open windows on a July Sunday you had to believe… it was just like a gift from God. I still have memories of old ladies in flowery print dresses and pillbox hats waving fans from Twiford’s Funeral Home with scenes from the Bible and praying children printed on them.
Delly White was a permanent fixture in the amen corner; he was a huge man, always wore a black suit and tie with a white shirt and had the biggest feet I’d ever seen. He also had some kind of speech impediment that made him spit when he spoke. I guess for this reason he pretty much had the amen corner to himself. If the preacher was on a roll talking about tithing or fornication you didn’t want to be in front of Delly.
The pews were yellow pine and hard as a rock. They not only accommodated worshipers but served as beds for sleepy children and a place where teenagers and young married couples could hold hands.
This church was my refuge, a place of acceptance. And aside from the usual scary old women and grumpy men who seem to be a part of every congregation, the churchgoers were, for the most part, good people and kind to children.
The church was decorated with palm fronds and lilies for Easter, holly and ivy for Christmas, and at other times with flowers in large white baskets to commemorate those that had passed.
There was a belfry and a bell, but the rope was tied up and out of reach. My father told me that Charles Hardison was the only man allowed to ring the bell. It seems that if you rang it too hard it got stuck and someone had to climb the belfry and release the bell. And as I recall, I never heard that bell ring. I wish I had.
For a child it was a wondrous place of belonging, of being accepted and fawned over. Doctrine, sins of the flesh and iniquities were just words that mingled with fantastic stories and adventures. I’d like to recapture that innocence again but age and life has changed me. But I will be forever grateful for that church and those people who are now just remnants of my past.
She was built around 1897-98 and when I knew her in the 1960s she was starting to show her age, but what a beauty she must have been in her prime! In 1973 the congregation decided they needed more parking spaces (I do believe in progress but the curse of the car desecrated the Elizabeth City of my youth) so the building was torn down and a new facility was erected. My family had moved on to another church by then and this grand old lady was forgotten. But when I look back on things I wish I could have gotten the chance to say goodbye to her one last time, to look out from that crooked pulpit once again at the ghosts and spirits that lived in those walls before that piece of my life disappeared forever.
PS. Thanks to my father, Charlie Hobbs, Dennis Boyce and Phyllis Davis Boyce for setting me straight on a few details.