For almost two years, Union County newcomer Patricia Bridges and her family looked for a church home.
Finally, they found one.
It's Rock Hill AME Zion Church in Indian Trail. And it is old, very old.
Today, the church will mark its 143rd anniversary, and newcomers and natives alike are invited to come share the celebration.
“We were founded the year the slaves were set free, in 1865,” Bridges said.
She and her family joined the church in March. Although she's new to the congregation, she's proud of the church's history and its roots that stretch into Union County's old gold mines.
She said the church was founded when three miners – Nat Morris, William Shelborne and David Newell – began to hold prayer meetings in a small mineshaft. Shelborne and Newell, who were white, and Morris, who was black, were then joined by four others: Daniel Wentz, Jackson Black, Issac Stewart and Joe Orr, she said.
“Together, they founded a church in a small tool mining shed. That is just a hint of the fascinating history of Rock Hill AME Zion Church.”
But when she, her husband and two grandchildren moved to Lake Park from Braselton, Ga., she knew nothing of the church or its history. They traveled to churches in Charlotte, Waxhaw and elsewhere to find a place where they felt at home. In the car on the ride home, they would ask each other, “Was that it?”
Invariably, the answer was “No, that wasn't it,” Patricia recalled.
“We didn't join right away. Every Sunday would be another confirmation that this was right. It has just been a blessing to all of us.”
She'd like it to be a blessing to others as well, and suggested that the anniversary celebration might be a great opportunity for others to visit and get a taste of the history and community that have sustained the church for 143 years.
“The morning service will emulate some traditions from earlier days,” Patricia wrote in an announcement. “It promises to spark memories of some worshippers' childhoods. For others, the service will be an enlightening experience.
“Particular focus will be given to the singing of spirituals and how they have changed through the years,” she continued.
“The theme of the day is ‘Back to the Old Landmark,'” she said during a telephone call, “so we're going to do things that were done in the 1800s and 1900s in a typical African American church…
“All the music was done a cappella…There were no hymnals, no (sheet) music. So someone would do what we call ‘raise a hymn.' Someone in the congregation would start a song, and the others would join in. The beat would be your feet…
“There would be one man in the church who would know all the songs,” she continued, “and at the beginning of each stanza, he would say the words and they would know what to sing.”
She emphasized that all people are welcomed and encouraged to attend – whether their roots stretch to Africa or not.
Many of the members are older people who grew up in the church. An example is Lem Long, who can answer visitors' questions.
“I was born and reared in the church,” he said, answering the phone from his family business, Long & Son Mortuary Service in Charlotte.
“I'll be 87 years old on Aug. 16th,” he said.
Looks like the church will have two reasons to celebrate that weekend.
Rock Hill AME Zion Church is located at 2723 Lawyers Road West, Indian Trail. For more information, call 704-882-1373.