Not many people can get a standing ovation just for showing up, as Hugh Abernathy did Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church.
But Abernathy, now 89, has been showing up for Sunday school every week – with no misses – since 1948.
You read that right: 60 years – 3,120 Sundays in a row.
His dangling chain of perfect attendance lapel pins – one for every year – now reaches his arthritic knees.
“I've learned a whole lot of stuff,” said Abernathy, who also wore a red rose Sunday. “And I feel like it's helped me.”
He's been a lifelong member at First Presbyterian, co-founded by his great-grandfather in this Gaston County town, and he's done most of his Sunday-schooling there.
But not all of it.
There were those Sundays when he'd go deer hunting, with his dogs. He'd always find a church – Presbyterian or not – and attend their Sunday school.
Three or four times, he landed at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte with kidney stones. He'd watch a video of a Sunday school class at First Presbyterian, or get his school lessons at the hospital.
His most vividly remembered close call, Abernathy said, was the Sunday one of his horses made him late. “I reckon it was the only time I was ever late for Sunday school,” he said.
As he remembers it, he'd walked out of his house that day, dressed in his Sunday best, when he noticed that one of his 17 horses was tangled up in wire.
“So I went and got my pliers and clippers and things, and I commence to cutting wire,” he said. “I just had to help that horse. She just was standing there, scared to move.”
Asked if he thinks he was doing God's will that day, even if it meant being tardy for class, Abernathy flashed a sense of humor fellow church members say he's known for.
God's will, maybe, he said. The horse's will, definitely.
Raised by religious parents, Abernathy, one of 11 children, started going to Sunday school when he was 3 or 4.
But he didn't start his perfect attendance marathon until he turned 29. He said he initially did it after his older sister, Margie, challenged him.
But as he got older, he made a pledge to God.
“I promised that if I was able to get up on Sunday morning, I'd be in a church somewhere, for Sunday school,” he said.
A retired carpenter who still has “gusto for God,” as one of his pastors put it Sunday, Abernathy has also had his darker times. His first wife left him for another man, he said, and he emerged from that valley by reading the whole Bible, a passage every morning.
He married his second wife, Ellie, in 1980. “My (first) husband used to trade guns with him, before he died,” she said. After she became a widow, “we just started talking. … He's a wonderful guy.”
Nobody at the 550-member church was sure Sunday whether Abernathy holds the world record for Sunday schooling, though some have notified the Guinness World Records folks.
Record or not, Pastor Dan King said Abernathy's feat is itself a Sunday school lesson.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our children and all of our church people to see faithfulness in action,” said King, who hadn't even been born when Abernathy began his 60-year string. “He knows what it means to belong to a church.”