Liberty Grove, established in 1835, is the type of church typically associated with Sacred Harp. The church interior is unadorned. Bare pine walls. Plain metal fans and naked bulbs dotting the pine ceiling. Worshippers scattered among straight pine pews in uneven clusters, their hands rising and falling in 4/4 rhythm, down on the first beat, up on the third. Feet keep time as well.
Hurricane Katrina drew the curtains on the theater, as well as on Bay St. Louis, two and a half years ago. But the arts community refused to let the lights dim, and today they’re helping revive a town in one of the rare success stories of post-Katrina life on the Gulf Coast.
“I call him ‘Super Spann’ because he does his best to protect us,” says Olympia Hewitt, a Tuscaloosa County resident who watched in horror Dec. 6, 2000, as Spann stood on-screen – sleeves rolled up, wearing his ever-present suspenders – and warned residents of Bear Creek Trailer Park to seek shelter from a tornado. Eleven people died that day, but residents believe the toll would have been higher without his coverage. “He talks like he’s right there,” Ms. Hewitt adds, “telling you what’s happening.”
For a moment, Dockery seems bowed by the sheer enormity, then he squares his shoulders and a faint smile lights his eyes. There were no deaths, and that’s something. A thousand people volunteered to help the very next day, and that’s something, too. Union will rebuild what was destroyed and resume the master plan, more slowly perhaps, but always, always moving forward. “I don’t think we’ve lost hope, and I don’t think we’re Pollyannaish,” he says. “Our deep faith will carry us through.”
Motorcycles clog the sidewalk outside, engines idling. Children play tag while burly, tattooed men sit on the front porch, trading stories. If you poke your head inside and peer into the dark recesses, you may still be confused. Chinese lanterns strung from the ceiling cast a soft glow on card tables below. Mothers dole Cheerios to chubby-fisted toddlers. Adults buy soft drinks from “Moose,” a man with Samson biceps. But looks can be deceiving, and stereotypes don’t fly too well at the Hope Fellowship Church, anyway.
Seated in a plush chair in the couple’s expansive library, a glass of sweet tea in her hand, she commands respect. Ultimately, this is the message she teaches her students, respect for their husbands and for scripture, which she says trumps everything. Drawing inspiration from Titus 2:5, which exhorts women to love their husbands, love their children, and be “discreet, chaste homemakers,” Mrs. Patterson broaches no apology for the course. “These women are going to be pastors’ wives,” she explains. “They need to know this.”