Members of Gay’s Chapel United Methodist remember the church’s history
It was an extra-special weekend for Gay’s Chapel United Methodist Church, as the congregation observed its 175th anniversary.
Sunday morning brought an air of excitement and joy among parishioners. They sang favorite hymns and heard a recap of church history.
There were proclamations from local politicians, but the occasion represented much more than accolades for this country church.
It was a time for the church family to reminisce on nearly two centuries of working hard and serving the Lord.
On Saturday, a group of older members got together to talk about what Gay’s Chapel has meant to them over the years. Fred Winecoff and Mary Elizabeth Shaver Cline, both in their 80s, began coming to Gay’s Chapel, they said, before they were even born.
“If it’s true that babies can hear in their mother’s wombs, then we heard some sermons before we were born,” Cline said.
They must’ve liked what they heard, because the two are lifelong members.
Winecoff and Cline remember the one-room, wooden church, with no plumbing and no electricity, heated by two pot-bellied stoves.
These longtime members recall hearing the bell ring every Sunday morning around 9:30, calling worshippers to church.
The sound traveled across the creek and up the hill. Winecoff said that he was allowed to ring the bell one morning as a child, and he thought it the most fabulous treat ever.
The church sits atop a small hill on Woodleaf Road, just before you reach Woodleaf. It’s the last Salisbury address.
Members say there’s no colder place on a Sunday morning than on the church porch in the wintertime. Yet that’s where the Rev. Frank Gordon stands each Sunday, greeting parishioners.
On Sunday morning, Gordon kept warm in his winter coat and hat. He said he was quite comfortable. The morning was cold and crisp, but there was no wind.
When Winecoff and Cline were children, the women of the church were responsible for cleaning the church. Different groups took turns each week, sweeping with broomsage brooms.
Winecoff and Cline remembered that the men sat on the left side of the sanctuary, and the women on the right, perhaps following biblical tradition. At that time, the church leaders were all men, but the women taught Sunday school.
There were outhouses down the hill, one for men and one for women. For some reason, Winecoff said, the men’s path had more briars to dodge, while the women’s path was better kept.
“This is real,” Winecoff said. “We’re not kidding you. I was scared as a little kid to go by myself. I always tried to go before church.”
An exciting memory for the congregation took place in 1953, when the old building was torn down and the current sanctuary built.
“We little guys came with our daddies to help pick up scrap wood,” James Safley said. They also acted as gophers, fetching nails and tools. “We worked hard together. Nobody got excused from anything.”
The new sanctuary was supposed to cost $140,000, but because members did the work themselves, it was only $40,000, a point of pride the congregation savors still today.
“Back then, we had no lawyers, no doctors, no nurses, no schoolteachers,” Winecoff said. “We had no professionals — except we were professional farmers.”
A few members thought the new sanctuary would never be built. But John McClamrock pledged to put on the roof. Then Lee Livengood said he’d give whatever Lewis Godbey did. They each ended up giving 100 bags of mortar mix.
“It was fun,” Winecoff said of the construction project. “It was camaraderie.”
Members recall that their parents, most of whom worked in area textile mills, would come and work at the church, then work second shift, or work first shift and then come and work at the church.
Bottom line, they worked all day long, said Safley, a youngster at the time. “I pushed a wheelbarrow all day.”
Of course, it wasn’t all drudgery.
“All of the men were scared of walking on the rafters,” Safley said. “Mr. Rob Winecoff said, ‘I’ll stand on my head.’”
And he did. He was Fred Winecoff’s daddy.
All these years later, Safley is still a member of Gay’s Chapel.
“This is where I met the Lord,” he said. “This church has been good to me.”
His sister, Wilmer Safley Waller, is also a lifetime member.
“I love it here,” she said. “I love the people. I love everything about the church. I love the Lord.”
If it sounds like of the members are kin, well, they are. At one time, Safley said, the majority of the members’ names were Livengood, Winecoff and Safley. So most everybody was cousins.
There was a girl from Kannapolis who married into the congregation, who wasn’t kin to anybody. So Winecoff began calling her “Cousin Julia” to make her feel welcome.
Waller named several families who have been here for five generations.
“It makes me feel good,” Waller said. “My little great-grandson comes here, and he’s only 10 months old.”
“This is our strength,” Winecoff said. “When one suffers, every one of us suffers.”
Like any congregation, Gay’s Chapel parishioners have seen their share of births, baptisms, weddings, illnesses and funerals.
Judy Talley’s grandson was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 2½. Ethan Brown had successful surgery to remove the tumor, but suffered seizures for the next 20 years. At age 22, he’s now seizure-free.
“We have had a miracle,” Talley said. “The whole congregation just adopted him and loved him through this. We felt like we were nurtured.”
There are good times, too, of course. Twice a year, the church hosts a barbecue, the first Saturday in March and the first Saturday in November. Funds go to church upkeep and to local and global projects — just for whatever needs to be done, Waller said.
Gordon and his wife, Mary, have shared a call at Gay’s Chapel since 2012.
“This congregation is full of wonderful, loving, caring, sharing people,” Mary Gordon said. “It definitely is a rural, country church, and our worship reflects that. The church has been so warm and welcoming to us.”
Looking toward the future, she said, “this congregation will also be looking for ways to reach out to the community.”
Members volunteer for Woodleaf Elementary and West Middle schools, participating in the Food for Thought backpack program, the Angel Tree and One Church One Child.
“And in 20 to 25 years,” Mary Gordon said, “they’ll still be doing barbecue.”
On Sunday morning, members, visitors and guests filled the 240-seat sanctuary to capacity. They heard greetings from Craig Pierce, county commissioners’ vice chairman, Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson, Landis Mayor James Furr, Sheriff Kevin Auten, and Rep. Harry Warren, all in attendance. Terry Osborne, who led the anniversary committee, brought greetings from Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx and U.S. Rep. Howard Coble.
After the service, which featured a sermon from the Rev. Dr. Sam Moore, district superintendent, the congregation adjourned to the fellowship hall, to tables groaning with good food, to do what they do best — spend time as a church family.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.