(06/07/2021)

The last day for Tanner United Methodist Church

By Bob Weaver

The old saints of the Tanner Methodist Church would crowd into the pews even on the coldest winter nights to worship, sometimes bringing extra chairs to fill the aisles since 1881.

As rural villages have faded with centralization and in the USA church membership continues to spiral downward, in Calhoun, Gilmer and other rural counties, hundreds of churches stand empty and decaying.

Oldtimers who are people of place cling to the memories of their small communities, their church being a focal point, and in some instances a handful still manage to keep church doors open.

The 87-year-old old faithfuls have final prayer

In the Gilmer County village of Tanner, two 87-year-olds, Merceline Bennett and Lenwood Reaser, have kept the doors of the Tanner United Methodist Church open, sometimes being the only people to hear the Sunday worship service.

On June 23, 2019, the 1881 church was decommissioned, now standing dark, joining many other churches.

The five people in attendance were reminded by pastor Dr. Jeffrey C. Kanode that a church building is more than just walls and windows. It is also a sacred vessel that stores generations of religious memories, even for those who do not regularly practice a religion, sacred images and structures operate as powerful community symbols.

Parishioner Lenwood Reaser rings the last bell call

Dr. Kanode reminded the faithful who felt a connection to the Tanner church they may experience a sense of loss or even righteous anger, but when churches die, they die with dignity and hope.

The pastor Rev. Dr. Kanode (left), prior the closing ceremony, wrote about the church:

On this eve of Pentecost, I am thinking about a church.

I am thinking about a church that I pastor.

I am thinking about a church that sits on a once busy thoroughfare in the heart of a once thriving community.

I am thinking about a church with no indoor plumbing and restroom facilities.

I am thinking about a church now fighting mold, a collapsing roof, and a creek which spring and summer rains bring ever closer to the foundations—rocks, stones, and bricks mortared together back in 1882.

I am thinking about a church where two eighty-seven-year-old people—a man and a woman, unrelated, incidentally—gather faithfully each and every Sunday. We gather in the back Sunday School room now and have Bible study—the sanctuary just isn’t structurally sound anymore. Once a month we put the quarterlies up a little early and share the Eucharist.

I am thinking about a church once filled with the laughter and the cries of children, a church where those same children were baptized.

I am thinking about a church where the line was long heading up to the altar on Communion Sundays, folks empty and longing and needing, ready to receive the holy presence of Jesus. Visible grooves on the wood, bear witness to how they kneeled humbly in prayer afterward.

I am thinking about a church, Tanner United Methodist, formerly the Tanner Evangelical United Brethren Church. We met there this past week to go over the details, to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, to close the church. The last worship service at Tanner will be in just a couple of weeks.

Our District Superintendent was gentle and loving. A church is like a person, she told us. Like a person, it has a life cycle, a beginning and an end. And Mary Ellen praised those two elderly souls for being so faithful and so dedicated to their church, to Christ, for so long. And we prayed prayers of thanksgiving for all of those baptisms, for all of those Communions, for all of those revivals, wedding, homecomings, and potlucks.

We cried a few tears, but we didn’t leave the church grieving. We left the church in peace, with the joy of love. We left the church knowing that we are the church, and the compassionate mission of Christ’s body goes on and on and on.

My favorite theologian, Br. Bruce Springsteen wrote this:

Everything dies baby,
That’s a fact.
But maybe everything that dies
Someday comes back.

The Gospel encapsulated in a song about a young but already weary couple searching out new life in the shadows of casinos in Atlantic City, the Gospel so beautifully lived out for so long in a now tiny, weary church that will close soon, but will live on in many hearts and souls, including my own.

Old photos of closed Tanner High School adorn wall

The last service, shown (L to R) Jane Collins,
Kevin Cain, Lenwood Reaser and Pastor Kanode


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