Category Archives: Empty Churches

Mt. Zion AME Church

On Saturday, February 16, Buddy and I were traveling to Kimball on route 52.  As always, we were both searching for a church that we had not visited.  As we crossed the bridge at Eckman, I said, “Hey, that looks like a church over there.  I’ve never noticed it before.”  Buddy insisted that he had told me it was there.  If he had, I didn’t remember.

After our visit to Kimball, we traveled to Vivian.  While at Vivian, I took some shots of the old Vivian Grade School.  We had been down there last summer with Elaine McMillion, who was filming for “Hollow”.  Everything was so grown up at that time, however, that we could not see the school very well.  Buddy and I found a side entrance that was easy to get to, but we did not go in.  Not because he didn’t want to, but because I am a chicken when it comes to old buildings.  I know they have been standing there for years, but today might be the day they fall.

After taking a few shots of the grade school, I took a few more shots of the Peerless Coal & Coke Company Store.  My Granddad, Eltrue Gordon, had worked for them at some time.  That fact alone makes that old, burnt, falling down building a part of my family history.

We then drove to Eckman.  As we always do, we “discussed” how to get to the church.  I always say, “Let’s go this way”.  Buddy always says, “Let’s go that way.”  Of course, since I am driving, I always choose my way first.  (I don’t like it when I have to turn around and go the way he said, but it does happen more often than I like to admit.)  On this day……I was right.

© Renee Bolden

Mt. Zion AME, Eckman, WV Window

We pulled up to the church and the first thing we noticed was all the trash beside of it.  Looking at the church, we noticed how bad a shape it really is.  The roof on the left side is partially gone.  From viewing it on the outside, we were unsure if we would be able to go in.  I walked up to the window and said, “At least I can peak in and get some shots.”  As he always does, while I am repeating words of warning, Buddy ignored me and walked in the wide open door.

He came back out and said, “It’s ok, you can come in.”  I said, “Are you sure?”  He always gets aggravated at this time.  The time when my OCD kicks in and I require complete reassurance….once, twice and sometimes three times.  He calmly says, “Yeah, I’m sure.  Come on.”  I slowly and cautiously walked into a vestibule.  The first thing I did was look up for a bell.  I could see nothing but a wooden ceiling.  At least I would hear the bell before it crashed onto my head.

© Renee Bolden

Mt. Zion AME Church, Eckman, WV, Vestibule

I walked into the church  more cautiously than I did the vestibule.  The whole time, I was gripping my camera in front of me.  This way, if a human or animal lunges at me, I have a defense.  The defense of shooting them first. Essentially, taking their picture BEFORE they harm me.  Laugh if you must….go ahead.  I know that you are.  I can hear your laughter before you read this.  However, this is truly how I enter these falling down churches or buildings.

The first thing I noticed in the floor was a piece of gold Christmas garland.  You know the kind.  The kind that we have all used in Christmas plays when we dress the kids up as angels.  My first thought was this:  “Was their last service a Christmas service?”  I started looking at the roof and the ceiling.  I noticed a ceiling fan whose blades are completely drooped down, as if it is in complete despair.  There are a few wooden pews over to the right.  Two of them are upright while one has a leg missing and the other is laying on it’s back.  To the left is another pew against the wall and an old cabinet that has hymnals and papers strewn all over the floor in front of it.

© Renee Bolden

Mt. Zion AME, Eckman, WV, Sanctuary

Buddy was up to the front looking around.  There is a book laying on the altar that was a hymnal.  There is another book that is laying on the banister.  It has been purposefully laid there as if someone is coming back to take it home.   When he saw that book, Buddy said what he always says when he finds something unbelievable.  “You’re not going to believe this.”  “What is it?”, I said.   “You got to get a picture of it.  It’s a Bible with ice on the cover.”  He opened the cover to search out a name.  There is none.  Completely soaked through with ice on the cover, it is completely ruined.  It’s laying under a part of the roof that is halfway gone.  I took a few pictures.

© Renee Bolden

Mt. Zion AME, Eckman, WV, Bible

Buddy started toward the back of the church and I followed.  There is some more garland laying on a step that leads to the back.  There is a wall that partitions the front of the church to make a little hallway to the side.  Towards the back, we could see a restroom that had a shower.  To the left before the restroom is another room.  This room has a piano.

The piano, like the Bible, sits in that room like it is waiting on someone to return to get it.  It is turned towards the door, as if it could watch for someone to come pick it up to take it home.  The light from the window behind shone on the top and back of it.  I took a few pictures of it, and went back to the sanctuary.

© Renee Bolden

Mt. Zion AME, Eckman, WV, Piano

I took a few more shots of the Bible laying on the banister with debris all around, the pews that were left, and the falling in roof.  While alone in the room, I cried and said aloud, “Why, Lord?  I just don’t understand.”

I keep telling myself that population decline is one reason our churches are empty, am I lying to myself?  There are 22,000 people in McDowell County, enough to fill the open AND the closed churches.

As were leaving through the front door, we noticed it was starting to snow.  After taking a few shots outside, I went back in to attempt a few shots of the snow falling.  I said, “Can you make them a little bigger, Lord?”  And wouldn’t you know it, they got a little bigger.  I couldn’t hold my camera well enough, though, to take a good shot.  Before we left, I asked Buddy if we should take the Bible with us.  It didn’t seem right to leave it there, but then, it didn’t seem right to take it, either.  It is still there.

“And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.”  Exodus 25:8 KJV

I wish I could show you the snow falling through that church roof.

© Renee Bolden

Mt. Zion AME, Eckman, WV

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Review of 2012 Churches

“This little light of mine I’m gonna let it shine”…….

On January 7, 2012, Buddy and I started this adventure of visiting the churches in McDowell County, West Virginia. Unfortunately, we did not get to visit as many as we would have liked. We still have many more to go.

This is what I have seen….in reality and in my mind’s eye.

All of the houses that we passed to go to one of the churches are standing. The houses are occupied, lights are on everywhere and the community is filled with life up and down the streets and rows! We are prosperous.

First Missionary Baptist ChurchKimball, WV

First Missionary Baptist Church
Kimball, WV

McDowell County is supplying the nation with coal, as we ARE the nation’s coal bin! Welch has one of the first parking garages in the nation built, downtown is full of banks, shops, and theaters. The lights from downtown light up the night sky! It is Little New York, the Free State of McDowell!

It is Sunday and in all the churches, I see people sitting in the pews and standing all around as there are no seats to be had. The children sing, “This Little Light of Mine”, the Gospel is preached, then the pianist plays “Amazing Grace” as the congregation sings. I can see them even now, as their light shines bright into the community.

Time flies as the hands on the clock circle unimaginably fast.

There are some empty houses now in the community, and not as many lights shining on the streets and rows. Many people have moved to find work elsewhere, due to the fact that there are no jobs to be had or because of the raging waters that claimed their home. Coal is still being mined, but the people are not benefiting from it as they once were. A few shops in town have closed and the theaters. Lights are still shining downtown, though!

© Renee Bolden

Long Point Missionary Baptist Church, Spencer Curve, WV

It is Sunday and my view is heartbreaking to say the least. I see a few empty seats, here and there. The hands on the clock continue to move. Then I see a few more empty seats. The hands are never failing on that old clock. It keeps ticking.

In half the churches, I see a few children still singing “This Little Light of Mine”, the Gospel is still being preached, and the pianist still sits at the piano playing “Amazing Grace” as the small congregation sings. I see them leaving now to come back next meeting time to this church house. It’s light continues to shine in the community.

In the other half of the churches, I see a handful of parishioners gathered with the pastor. I hear “Amazing Grace” being sung, but with no music as there is no pianist. I hear them talking. I’m not sure of the words that are being said, although I can tell they are words that these few never wanted to speak. I can feel the ominous meaning of them. I see them leaving now, not to return next meeting time to this church house. It’s light goes out in the community.

That old clock keeps ticking, just the same.

Many of the houses in the community have fallen in. No one has lived in them for years. Just as a body that has no life, the earth claims them with gravity, decay, and flood. There are a few standing. Some are occupied. There are a few lights on the streets and rows. Coal is being mined. There are not many people left to mine coal as machines now do what men used to. Mining is now all evaluations and regulations. Only a dress shop and a consignment shop now remain downtown. There are a few professional offices. The lights still shine at night….though somewhat dimmer.

© Renee Bolden

St. John Baptist Church, Pageton, WV

It is Sunday, and some of those churches that had to close their doors are as the houses in the community. Gravity has pulled in the walls and ceilings. Their steeples have crashed into the pews and beautiful wooden floors beneath. Pianos are underneath the collapsed walls, ceilings, and steeples.  Those ivory keys will never again play “Amazing Grace.”

Down the road, just a little ways, though, I can faintly hear sweet little voices in harmony: “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” A pause as I hear the clanking of a coal train in the distance. Then much louder I hear someone starting to play old ivory keys to the tune of a beautiful song, and on cue, voices singing in unison: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound”…….

Tick, Tock, Tick.

I have always considered myself an optimist; however, before I reviewed the churches we had visited, I was convinced there were more closed churches than open. I was surprised to learn that they are even. We visited 35 churches. Of those churches, 16 are open, 16 are closed, 2 are used for missions, and 1 moved to another building. Those churches that continue to operate are still letting their light shine!

By doing this project, we have met and talked to so many wonderful people. For those of you I have I have met and talked to, thank you for your help, stories and encouraging conversations! For those I have yet to meet, I can’t wait to visit your church! Remember to keep your light shining as we still have amazing grace!

Thanks to all who have read the blogs and newspaper articles, encouraged us to keep going, and those who went with us on the journeys!

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 5:16.


Big Four Methodist Church Update

On January 8, 2012, my mom (Caroline Mitchem), my aunt (Audrey Goins), and my daughter (Emily Bolden) visited the Big Four Methodist Church.  We were unable to go inside as the floor was starting to separate away from the door.  We peeked in as best we could, as there was a piano behind the door.  I took a few pictures as we visited, and was heartbroken at the condition this little church was in.

Big Four Methodist Church: January 8, 2012

As I had stated in a previous blog and article, this little church was special to me.  My Granny (Laura Gordon) attended that little church, with my mom, aunts & uncles in tow.  It is located just across the road from where they lived on Big Four hill.  My aunt Audrey remembers going to this little church as a child.

Passing by this fall, I discovered that the roof had collapsed.  It broke my heart once again.  Many people have told me they considered that little church to be a beautiful, country church.  My hope was that it could be resurrected to be a tourist attraction as a little coal camp church.  A place to show people that pass through what we used to have here and how things once were in McDowell.  We have such a rich history that is slowly crumbling away.

Big Four Methodist Church: November 28, 2012

This little church now stands as a shadow of what it was once.  The steeple that once pointed proudly to the heavens, has now crumbled into the body of the sanctuary.  The reason I call the sanctuary a body is because that is what it once held — the members of the church, which was it’s body.  The church’s Soul, however, is in Heaven, as it always was.  The Spirit of it remains here on earth, just not in those four walls.  That is my comfort.

I wish I had the money to reconstruct this little church, as the little coal camp church as it once was.  It would then erase this memory that it is now.  What a difference the ticking of the clock makes — whether it be to the good or to the bad.


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