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Saved by an angel: donation gives church new life

By Cassie Clark

Photos by Darius White

Seigenthaler News Service

Chilhowie, Va. – Morning light streams in from the rippled glass windows of Tate’s Chapel U.M.C., bathing the small sanctuary in a warm glow, as members assemble in their usual spots for the Sunday morning service. The pianist is running late, but no one seems to mind the wait. They talk among themselves, longtime friends that they are.

There’s Flo Clarke, wearing a floral blouse, with a pair of colorful Skechers on her feet. Mabel Jones sits one pew in front of Flo. Purple is her color today, accented by a bracelet of pearls on her right wrist. Nell Testerman, dawned in green from head to toe, is seated next to Mable. She sports a purse with her first name stitched into the fabric. At the end of the pew is Nell’s daughter, Lisa Stokes, who is the church secretary.

Counting the pastor, that accounts for everyone. Well, almost. A fill-in pastor is preaching today on this Pentecost Sunday because the church’s pastor, Rev. Lisa Bryant, is on vacation.

The faithful four members attend service at Tate’s Chapel every Sunday, even since their population has been diminished to this small group of older women. People moved away, or passed away, but they stayed, determined, praying, singing, and hoping for God to bring a miracle to keep their tiny chapel alive.

And he did. Three weeks ago, the church was notified that a woman in Johnson City had bequeathed Tate’s Chapel a whopping $700,000.

The pianist arrives, and the call to worship begins. The guest pastor, Chase Crickenberger, reads from the book of Psalm before leading the opening prayer. When the pianist plays the first out-of-tune piano note, only five voices sing along to the hymn, “Spirit of the Living God.”

There are more pews than people in Tate’s Chapel. With 18 pews, each wide enough to fit at least seven adults, you could fit the faithful four members of this church on just one, with room for a few more. If you didn’t know that they were the entirety of the population of Tate’s Chapel, you might believe that attendance was simply extremely low today- if not for the sign on the wall that read “ATTENDANCE: 6, OFFERING: $50,” unchanged from the previous Sunday’s service.

The program for the service included a prayer list on the back page that was more than seven times the number of members of the church.

“It’s a small congregation, but it’s just like a big family,” Testerman said.

Testerman and Stokes have been members of the church since 1985.

Jones said she feels like she has been a member of the church “forever.” Jones started attending Tate’s Chapel at the age of six years old. She moved away briefly but returned.

Clarke became a member in 1975 and has been, “faithful ever since,” she said.

The members are a very tight knit group, according to Bryant.

“They talked on the phone every day throughout the pandemic and checked on each other. They pretty much do everything together,” Bryant said.

In 1892-1893, Tate’s Chapel was built for $75, plus the cost of materials. In early May of 2021, the church was left $700,000 by the late Elizabeth Wells, who recently passed at the age of 97 years old. Wells grew up attending Tate’s Chapel. Rev. Jane Taylor, the superintendent for the Clinch Mountain District of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, was shocked when she heard how much money Wells had left for Tate’s Chapel. Taylor served as pastor for First United Methodist Church in Johnson City, TN, where Wells was once a member.

“She was always perfectly dressed. Her hair was always perfect, and she always had a smile on her face. She was just a tremendous, sweet person,” Taylor said.

Wells’ connection with Tate’s Chapel runs deep. Wells’ sister married into the Stokes family. Stokes was just as surprised as anyone about the large gift.

“When I got the paperwork that she was going to give us 10% of her estate, I figured it would be 10 or $20,000, not $700,000,” she said.

All the members of Tate’s Chapel were grateful for the gift.

“I just about praised the lord when I heard it…I knew Elizabeth and she was a great lady. We appreciate her very much even though she’s an angel,” Clarke said.

“It’s just a testimony to God’s work,” pianist Ann Marshall said.

Bryant explained that Tate’s Chapel is used to receiving donations every few years, usually no more than $10,000. So, when Bryant originally heard about the gift, she wasn’t very surprised. When the actual check came, however, her reaction was different.

“I had to sit down,” she said.

Bryant and Taylor plan to make use of the donation by establishing a cooperative parish between seven different churches in Southwest Virginia, spanning from Saltville to Chilhowie, most of them in rural areas. Rev. Taylor explained that many small churches in the region have been struggling due to COVID-19 and a lack of new members. The latter is certainly true for Tate’s Chapel.

“We had a couple of pastors that people did not care for. They didn’t want to do anything with the children, and of course when you have no children, you have no future, so they moved to other churches,” Stokes explained.

The seven churches in the parish will “work cooperatively with three pastors” sharing ministry “so they won’t be isolated,” said Taylor. She is hopeful that the parish will breathe new life into churches in the area like Tate’s Chapel.

The gift will allow Tate’s Chapel to hire a student intern from Emory & Henry College. It will also allow for the church to start up new ministries.

Tate’s Chapel is geographically in the middle of the planned parish. Bryant hopes to utilize the church and its location to its full potential.

“I have a dream of a recovery ministry in the area. It’s so needed,” she said.

Bryant’s very optimistic about the way the gift will be used, but also believes in the power of people, especially in that of the faithful four of Tate’s Chapel.

“The way I look at ministry is everyone has something to offer. No matter what your age, your financial situation, everybody has something to offer,” she said. “They recognize that they’re older and can’t do the things that they once did. They’re very fervent in their prayers, and they’re very giving… I think this is going to open up even more possibilities for them to be in ministry to the community, so I’m excited.”

When the service ends, the candles are extinguished and the ladies slowly make their way out of the chapel, conversing for the entire walk to the door. Stokes stops to lock the doors before joining the rest of the faithful four in piling into the same van. They pull out of the parking lot, filled with certainty, thanks to their miracle, that they will be able to return for many Sundays to come.

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