Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 20, 2013

WESTERN ROWAN COUNTY — A shower the previous evening left the grass soaking wet and, to the men sitting on chairs outside the church equipment shed, it grows longer by the minute.
They wait on both sides of the door, postponing their inevitable assault just a few minutes more in hopes the sun will burn off some of their torment.
“Normally, we would have done been rolling,” 72-year-old Hugh Sloan complains. “I believe this is the wettest summer we’ve had.”
It’s hard to say when the call to arms is made and who makes it. Maybe it happens when Tom Holt eases into the seat of the orange, zero-turn-radius mower. It could be when Billy McNeely and Larry Holt grab weedwhackers, or when Walter Stockton hops onto the Massey-Ferguson tractor.
But the Yard Ministry crew at Sills Creek AME Zion Church doesn’t need the sound of a starting gun. They know their jobs and their equipment. No one has to tell them three hours of good, hard work lies ahead.
So off they go.

The “yard ministers” judge they are responsible for taking care of about 9.5 acres on both sides of Bradshaw Road.
Every Thursday, they meet here at 8 a.m. — a group of six to eight retirees who make it their mission to maintain the church grounds and save the congregation the cost of farming out the work to professionals.
The guys see it like this — they’re saving money for the church and saving money for themselves as members of the congregation.
But they also do it out of love for Sills Creek AME Zion, where many of them have attended church their whole lives.
“If we didn’t have a love for it, we wouldn’t last long,” Tom Holt says.
If there’s a commander for these men, it’s 80-year-old Clyde Cornelius Sr. He keeps the gas cans full, updates the church trustees on the ministry’s needs and makes the calls whenever the work days have to be rescheduled.
Out of curiosity once, Cornelius asked a landscaping maintenance contractor how much he would charge the church for doing what the yard ministry does. The contractor said $900 a week.
Coming out of the shed, the men disperse quickly.
Stockton and the tractor head toward the open lawn between the upper parking lot and a neighboring cornfield.
Tom Holt and Hugh Sloan steer their mowers to the church cemetery across the road. McNeely and Larry Holt hoist up weed machines and start swinging them along the steep roadside banks. Later, Cornelius is trimming around the driveway and sidewalks.
Larry Holt and McNeely are soon dripping with sweat and covered with grass. As Holt swings his weed-eating machine back and forth, there’s smoke to go along with the spray of water and green. He wears goggles, a breathing mask, overalls and a long-sleeved shirt as part of his protective armor.
“You wouldn’t believe we do what we do,” Sloan says later, acknowledging most of the men are up in years. “But the good Lord has been good to us.”
People come and go from the church as the men work around them. The children of a summer day camp already are shooting baskets at the goal in the upper parking lot.
The yard ministers also have to maneuver around church shelters, a playground, the cemetery tombstones, a carport, the equipment shed, many trees and the brick church itself, of course.
But even with their noise, it’s a bucolic scene when you take in a church on the hill, a winding country road, fields of open grass, majestic oaks, rows of corn and the woodland along Sills Creek in the distance.
The yard ministry includes Larry, Tom and Marcus Holt; Cornelius; Sloan; Billy and Harry McNeely; Stockton; and Cleo Brawley.
Cornelius likes to have at least six guys every Thursday.
“We made an agreement long ago, ain’t no man who has any business out there by himself,” Cornelius says.
Before retirement, the men worked at places such as Hoechst Celanese, Carolina Freight and PPG. Today they live in places all across the county, including Salisbury, Landis, China Grove and East Spencer.
The yard ministers do more than mow and trim.
They maintain all the equipment by doing things such as changing the oil, replacing belts, sharpening blades and rewinding spools.
The men’s work extends to about Thanksgiving, because they also have bushes to trim, limbs to pick up, leaves to blow and holes to fill in.
“There’s something to do about all the time,” Sloan says.
On Thursday mornings, some hierarchy is involved in terms of the equipment. “It’s kind of individual,” Larry Holt says. “You’ve got to work up to it.”
Veteran members of the ministry tend to have first dibs on the mowers and tractor, while some of the younger, newer members start out on string trimmers.
The men say there are no jealousies.
Because of space limitations, the equipment has to go in and come out of the shed in a particular order. The tractor with its 61-inch mowing deck is last in, first out.
As the summer goes along, Stockton brings produce from his garden to share with the others. On this day, the back of his pickup includes tomatoes and sweet corn.
Stockton also keeps a cooler of water in the back for everybody to share, or the men bring their own drinks.
The Thursday morning work always ends close to noon, and the men climb into the church van and head off for lunch and fellowship. They often drive toward the Golden Corral or Fat Boy’s in Mooresville.
“I have to give them credit,” Cornelius says, with grass in his white beard and sweat dripping down the side of his face. “We’ve had some good men up here.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or