Congregation bids farewell to Welch’s historic Court Street UMC

By Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV

It was Holy Saturday.  Although they mark Good Friday and Easter Sunday, most secular calendars do not delineate that in-between day as Holy Saturday, but for many Christian traditions, it exists as the day of silence, the one full day Christ was dead, and the empty tomb and resurrection only existed in the realm of imagination, possibility, prayers, and hope.

On Holy Saturday, 2024, nearly fifty people gathered at Court Street United Methodist Church for the final service of the historically black church in Welch. 

The building of Court Street United Methodist Church seems to stand protective vigil above Welch, West Virginia. Photo by Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV.

“We are celebrating the sunset of Court Street United Methodist Church, on Holy Saturday, which means everything to us,” reflected longtime Court Street parishioner Ruth Hairston.  “This day tells us of our chance to be with Christ in heaven, and with everyone, again.”

Hairston’s connection between her church’s closure and Holy Saturday; the thread she tied between the hope of heaven and reunion with loved ones, resonated in a sacred way within the sacred space of the church’s sanctuary, where a vibrant congregation gathered for worship one last time still left empty spaces in pews—spaces once occupied by faithful congregants who have died.

Former Court Street pastor Olen Winfree came back to Court Street’s final service, and he too echoed the theme of life ebbing into death, only to remerge within the waters of a future tide crashing upon the shore. “You have been here for a long time. Times have changed. Families, people we love have gone on. What do we do? You are not called here to give up your faith, or to quit. It is all right, here on this Saturday between death and life.  God brought all of us here today. We are all in God’s presence. It’s all right.”

It’s all right.

“We will always have memories of growing up in our church. We learned lessons of life in this church. This church taught so many people the lessons of life,” Ruth Hairston went on to say, later in the service.  “I have cried my tears. I have come to terms with the church closing. Like the hymn says, ‘It is well with my soul.’”

Missy Hairston, Ruth and Michael Hairston’s daughter, grew up in Court Street UMC.  With both tears welling up in her eyes, and a broad smile crossing her lips, she shared one of her favorite memories of her church, this one centered around another important holiday, Christmas.

“I was always Mary in the Christmas plays,” she recalled. “I had a baby doll who was always Jesus.  But this baby doll would laugh if you touched it, and someone or something did, so Jesus started to laugh, right in the middle of the play.”  

She always came to church with her grandma, Juanita Kendall.  Mrs. Kendall walked the neighborhood of Court Street, shepherding many of the children to church every Sunday.  “I always loved coming to church so I could dress up,” Hairston noted with a wink.   Years later, as an adult, on a Holy Saturday service of church closure, Missy Hairston took a loving look around the sanctuary of her church.  She said she could go around the church, pew by pew, and remember where every person sat. “That was ‘their pew,’” she said with soft laugh.

Like most small membership United Methodist churches which make the painful decision to close, Court Street faced a major loss of population within its community, less and less people coming out to church, and increasing financial strain. With Court Street’s closure, only twelve historic black United Methodist churches remain in West Virginia. 

Rev. Brad Davis, Court Street United Methodist Church’s current pastor, centered his sermon around the narrative of the three women who journeyed to Jesus’s tomb on the first day of the week. Davis said that the women were going to the grave to care for the body of the one who “re-humanized them,” the one who was “most importantly, their friend, who honored their dignity and humanity.”  

As those three women became the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, Davis transitioned from the theme of mourning a loved one’s death to the faith’s gift of the  hope of resurrection, and a still promised, grace-filled future. The pastor told the friends and members of his church, “When you are in mourning, it can be hard to grasp the morning—the birds enchanting son, the hopeful rays of sunshine piercing the night.”

Davis connected Church Street UMC’s death with the death of a loved one, the death of Christ, and the promise of new life, resurrection, which emerges even out of death, and in spite of it.  “Memories never die. Neither does Court Street…You can close a building, but you cannot close God’s church.”

Davis went on to say: “Court Street Church isn’t this building. Court Street Church is you! Court Street’s legacy is you!”  He told the gathered that they are “witnesses of Christs’ love, mercy, and grace…Court Street will continue rising in you. Because of that, Court Street is eternal.”

Echoing the angel speaking to the women in Mark’s narrative of Christ’s resurrection, Davis proclaimed, “You came here looking for Court Street? She is risen. She isn’t here.  Court Street is going out there ahead of you. That’s where you’ll see her.”

In that spirit, the congregation of Court Street UMC has endowed a college scholarship for black students in McDowell County. 

Rev. Chip Bennett, the District Superintendent of the Southern District of the West Virginia United Methodist Conference, presided over Holy Communion, and he led the service of deconsecration from The United Methodist Book of Worship. The words of that service recall the holy work the church carried out—the baptisms, weddings, and Communion services shared and cherished now in memory.  “It was God’s gift for a season,” the liturgy reads. “It has accomplished its purpose.”

After the worship service concluded, the congregation shared a fellowship meal. Many lingered for a long time, sharing the memories and emotions evoked from the service and the day so electric, so alive with meaning, a day for the people of faith of Court Street, oh so holy. 

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