by Gannon Sims
The little community of Red Oak is tucked into the deep woods that dominate the Southside Virginia landscape. To get to the nearest restaurant, you’ve got to drive 15 miles to Clarksville. The nearest big box store is 30 miles away in Henderson, North Carolina. None of this was lost on Mike Lyon when his wife Jane accepted the pastorate at the Antioch Baptist Church.
“It was a sort of Nineveh moment” says Mike. “ I never dreamed of warming the pew at a little country church.”
A few months into their time at Antioch, Mike began stopping off at the small store about a mile down the road—a place the locals call “Weston’s Store”—while Jane gathered with the deacons for a 9:00 a.m. prayer time. The second generation owner, Warren Weston, is the local purveyor of groceries, gasoline and fishing bait. Like the church down the road, Weston’s Store is a good place to meet people. Their Sunday clientele is just a little bit different. The church is mostly women. The folks at the Weston store are mostly men.
The men who gather at Weston’s store are more likely to work with their hands for a living. These guys are carpenters and craftsmen, farmers and landscapers. They know how to mend a fence, drive a truck, and catch a fish. Week after week Mike stopped by the store at 9:00 am and invited the men to church. And week after week, the men politely said “okay,” but never showed up. One Sunday out of frustration Mike said, “tell me the truth guys, you have no intention to come to church do you? One of the guys finally exclaimed: “No! Why don’t we just have church right here?”
The next Sunday, Mike arrived at Weston’s Store with a Bible and a bag of ham biscuits. Warren Weston made a pot of coffee and this little group of men started having church.
Every Sunday at 9:00, Mike shares a thought from the Scriptures. Then the men talk about life. Then they pray. And they ask if anyone milling about the store or standing in line for gas or cigarettes wants to join them.
“Pray for me.”
The man held up a little brown bag concealing the contents of his purchase. “Pray for me.” He said. Then he took a sip. “You know, God sees passed all of that” said Mike. “And he wants you to see past it too.”
It wasn’t long before the man with the little brown bag became a Sunday morning regular. His name is Frank. He’s 65 and today he’s a different person. Three years ago, he lived in a trailer in the woods with no indoor bathroom. And he paid too much rent to an absentee landlord.
Every Sunday after the prayer time at the store, Frank would go out to his truck to get several empty gallon jugs. One by one, he would fill each one with water. It took several months before anyone thought to ask the reason behind all of those gallon jugs.
Frank took the water home every week for drinking, washing and flushing. Until meeting Mike and the guys at the store, it hadn’t occurred to him that he didn’t have to live this way.
Mike took Frank to the Social Security office. He helped him with the necessary paperwork to move him from the trailer and into better housing. The guys in the group pitched in to buy Frank some furniture for his new life.
Another man, Carl, hadn’t frequented church either—he felt unworthy to attend. After hearing God through the Sunday morning ‘church at Weston’s Store’ with his heart as well as his ears, Carl accepted Christ. He made his decision public by joining Antioch Baptist and pursuing baptism. A second man, Billy, in his 70’s did the same thing. Billy hadn’t been inside a church building before. And yet here he was. He’d found some friends, quit drinking and now was a candidate for baptism.
Billy was waiting in an adjacent room as Carl entered the waters for baptism first. As Mike waited with him, Billy asked, “Can I watch Carl be baptized, I’ve never seen anyone baptized before.
Mike’s wife Jane ushered for him to take a step into the water. At first glance, the people seated in the pews on Sunday seemed so different from the folks who stand in line on Sunday morning to buy cigarettes at Weston’s Store, but today something was different. Today, Billy can see. And, thankfully, so can the people seated in those pews.
The place Mike once considered to be a sort of Nineveh, now looks like the Promised Land.
In the past three years Jane Lyon has baptized four of those men. She’s baptized a wife and a couple of their kids too. Before meeting Mike, all of the men had little if any experience of church. And they’re thankful for the little expression of church meeting at the Weston Store.
Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.