HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. - For 135 years, Mud Creek Missionary Baptist Church has served as a spiritual and civic touchstone for some of Henderson County's oldest black families.
"Mother" Rena Clay's ancestors were among freed slaves from Charleston, S.C., who formed Mud Creek Missionary's congregation in 1867 in a borrowed white meeting hall.
Now Clay, 78, and her daughter, Wanda Horne, are among the handful of parishioners who attend services in the small white structure in the community of East Flat Rock.
Membership has dwindled since the congregation peaked at about 150 members in the late 1930s. Now, with only a handful left, the church might disappear.
Members are struggling to pay a $20,000 loan the church took out to build a kitchen and fellowship hall in 1996. The church needed the addition because the old basement kitchen flooded and members needed a place to eat outside of the sanctuary, Clay said. The church still owes about $15,000.
Clay remembers when the existing structure was built in 1933. She was 9 years old.
"I used to bring up food and water for the people who were working on it," she said. "My grandfather and my uncle, J.C., worked on it. It didn't seem like it took too long to build - there were quite a few folks working on it."
Part of childhood
Horne said losing the church would, in a sense, be like losing her childhood.
"I remember my grandparents there. And I remember my great-grandparents there," she said. "It's like going back to your roots when you go there."
Linda Culpepper, a Western Carolina University history professor from Sylva, has helped publicize the church's plight. Culpepper, who is white, is writing her doctoral thesis on black churches in western North Carolina.
"I just want to remind people that the church is there and that it's significant and I don't want to see it lost to a bank note," she said.
Black house slaves in Flat Rock attended the churches of their masters during the Civil War years, Culpepper said. They sat on the rough-hewn benches at the back of the church, provided white people didn't need them.
The two major churches in the area at the time were St. John's in the Wilderness Episcopal Church, and Mud Creek Baptist Church. The first two slaves ever to be married at St. John's in the Wilderness were Caesar and Venus Edwards, Clay's great-grandparents.
After the war and emancipation, many of the freed servants decided to stay in the Flat Rock area, which their masters had used as a retreat from Charleston's sweltering summers.
In 1867, members of Mud Creek Baptist voted to let their "black friends" use their meeting house on days it would normally be empty, Culpepper said. In 1889, after years of sharing meeting houses and worshiping wherever they could find the space, the Mud Creek Missionary congregation was able to pool its money and buy 1.5 acres in Flat Rock.
Instrumental in the purchase of the land were such freedmen as Isriel Simmons, who in 1871 was the first black to buy property in nearby East Flat Rock. He paid $90 for 18 acres, Culpepper said.
By 1894, Mud Creek Missionary had its first permanent sanctuary. The congregation expanded on that structure several times before deciding to build a church closer to where most members lived, in East Flat Rock.
In 1928, Simmons' son, Henry Shield Simmons, founded the Society of Necessity to provide loans to community members, among other charitable causes. With the help of the society, in 1928 the church bought the property where it now stands. Final dedication of the building came in June 1934.
As the country and East Flat Rock climbed out of the Depression, collections grew from pennies to dollars, Culpepper said. But at the same time, "out-migration" of blacks moving from the rural South to the North and West began to drain Mud Creek Missionary's membership, she said.
Help from friends
Other factors also intervened: Formerly all-white churches grew more inviting and attractive to blacks, historically black communities like the one surrounding Mud Creek Missionary changed in ethnic makeup and church life in general became less important to society.
Mud Creek Missionary has survived recently, in part, through the help of its mother church, Mud Creek Baptist, said Clay, Horne and Culpepper. Members of that church helped with renovations and donated pews and air-conditioning.
Horne said just talking about the possible closing of the church makes her emotional.
"I was reading sometime that 20-some people were saved or baptized on one Sunday. Now we don't even have that many members," she said.
Asked why she thinks the church should be saved, Clay blinked and paused, as if surprised by a question with an obvious answer.
"It's a place of worship. A place of God and fellowship," she said.