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In 1812, on a couple of acres of northwestern Shelby County, members of Dover Baptist Church first assembled and discussed heavenly guidance in the prairies of what was then the nation’s western environs. Kentucky was only 20 years a state, and the congregation surely must have prayed for divine intervention in its growth and the safety of its settlers.
This Sunday, that 200th birthday will be celebrated at Dover, and a lot of folks I know will be there – most notably, I predict, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. They are always there.
If I seem a bit overly enthused about a historic celebration that is far from unique around here, please understand that this is personal: For more than a third of those 20 decades a member of my family has sat faithfully in the pews of the little white church in the meadow and helped keep that spirit moving forward.
A working history of the church was penned in the 1960s by my grandmother Georgia Doyle, a rendering of its traditional frame structure painted on plates and Christmas ornaments was originated by Jean Kemper, one of my multitalented cousins, and at least three generations of kinfolk have on some Sundays carried a plurality of worshipers. When my grandchildren someday darken the doors of Dover, that will be four generations.
We were there among multiple members of the lineage of the Prices, Rutledges, Parkers, Wilborns, Pulliams, Coxes and Millers, to name a few, and lots of others from the farms and roads surrounding Chestnut Grove. Brotherhoods were built, sisterhoods were formed and friendships grew. The people I first knew as friends came from Dover.
Admittedly there are several older and more significant churches in Shelby County. Dover never has been large and never has been overly important except for those who called it home. It’s simply a place where members feel the touch of the Lord and want to bask in that feeling, where for the first 20 years of my life I was right there among them, whether or not my ears, eyes and heart were focused on the right subject.
Okay, sometimes, I was more interested in figuring out who was going to be playing softball at recess from Bible school or at the picnic on Sunday than in what the man in the pulpit was saying or someone was singing, but you couldn’t argue with the idea that immersion is good for the soul. I certainly was immersed in the spirit, because Dover thrives on spirit, even when the pews seem a little unfull.
During my time we saw the church add the knotty pine that adorns its sanctuary still, a vestibule (whatever that was) and an educational wing that brought with it indoor plumbing (small blessings!). Now, there’s even a larger meeting facility.
That the church was old seemed lost on those of us who were young, of course. Although I was there on the day when the church turned 150 (and 175), I don’t think its antiquity quite resonated until a teacher connected me with the concept that the church started meeting the same year the U.S. fought the Battle of New Orleans. That was ancient.
Like many other small churches around the county, Dover was born of an agricultural community and the need for a close-by place to worship, and it benefited from its proximity to the Southern Baptist Seminary to lure many a young Southern man for what usually was a 4-year stint as pastor.
Let us be certain here to note that being pastor at Dover truly is a calling, not simply a delicately phrased and spiritually handled hiring process. That means not everyone has been up to this being a full-time job and commitment.
Those who have succeeded embraced the concept that you are a pastor and not just a preacher, that your family helps weave the fabric of that leadership position, that the job requires an investment in the community and its residents, not just in researching and elocuting a message to be spoken from a perch above some of them each Sunday.
The most successful inhabitants of the neat parsonage beside the church have met and understood the people who live around them on the narrow, winding roads. They understood how to knock on those doors, to extend the hand of brotherhood, to open hearts and minds byaddressing those neighbors’ needs.
I don’t know well the pastors who have served Dover in my lifetime, but I want to hold up as examples here four who earned my undying respect not only because they took a personal interest in me – as three of them did during my youth – but because they put down their personal roots at Dover and fertilized them with love, commitment and listening ears that sometimes moved them out of their comfort zones.
Russell Barker, now semiretired in the mountains of Georgia, expanded on my parochial knowledge of God and Jesus as a boy and later embraced me as a man, when I was of age to be one, whether or not I acted like it.
Rudy Patton, all-the-way retired in those same mountains, treated me like a man before I was old enough to be one and certainly didn’t act like one, showing me love and guidance as if he were part of my family, respecting me by asking my opinion on delicate matters and allocating me authority I did not deserve.
In between them was Bob Donovan, an athlete as well as a preacher, who connected with me through my love of sports and kept me near the church during years when it would have been easy to flail about.
And, although until recently I didn’t live around here, I saw what a man of the soul of Lee Bean could mean to Dover, where he resurrected the spirit of the old church just as surely as Jesus brought Lazarus out of that tomb, the same sort of heartfelt outreach that has led him to give safe haven to homeless men at his Open Door of Hope.
No, being the pastor at Dover never has been a job for just anyone because Dover never has been a church for just anyone.
Not, in my view, for at least 200 years.