Article by Fred Anderson.
Baptist churches declare that they observe two ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But it could be observed that there is a third and the season is upon us. It is called “dinner-on-the-grounds” and it is as much about fellowship as it is fried chicken.
From now, through the summer months and into early fall, Virginia Baptist churches – especially country churches – will be observing homecomings with the ritual of a covered-dish dinner whether under shade trees or inside with the marvels of air-conditioning.
Dinners-on-the-grounds are about as old as our sacred ordinances. It could be argued that the division of the loaves and fishes was the first dinner-on-the-grounds and a mighty crowd was served that day!
The custom goes back to the practicality of worshippers coming from a distance in wagons, buggies and carriages, attending an “all-day meeting” and needing sustenance before making the trip back home. The women had prepared hampers of food and, at first, it was a matter of each family feeding its own. In time, some wise soul had the idea of sharing the food on a common table which usually was planks fashioned between trees. Now the people could sample the dishes of the various cooks.
I remember once attending such an affair at an old church in Tidewater. My hostess escorted me down the long tables, suggesting which dishes were made by the better cooks. My plate was overloaded with fried chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs, sweet pickles and an array of fresh vegetables. When I finally met up with my wife, I discovered that she already had prepared me a plate which met her idea of a healthy diet. Now I was torn between pleasing my hostess or my wife! I ate some of both!
Years ago, someone wrote a description of a country church’s dinner-on-the-grounds. The food choices and preparations may not completely resemble contemporary dinners but the nature and abundance of such a meal is still in evidence.
Here is the old-time description: “Dinner, spread on long tables in the grove nearby, is an important feature. There is a rivalry among housewives as the board is loaded with fried chicken, piled high on plates, home-cured hams, legs of lamb, roast beef, and sometimes whole shoats. Chess pies – made by mysterious processes – and meringues and potato custards and cakes, variously colored and curiously ornamented, are drawn from beneath the covers of hampers. Every woman brings her best pickles and all the preserves and jellies by which her housewifery can be judged.”
The dinners-on-the-grounds during the approaching season probably won’t have “legs of lamb and whole shoats” but they usually have fried chicken, eggs which have been deviled as many different ways as there were preparers, potato salads with differing ingredients besides the expected potato, vegetables from local gardens, and an array of desserts. Once – and only once – I was treated to crabs at a dinner held at a church in the Northern Neck. It was a bit unnerving to try and pick crabs while dressed in a suit and tie!
Many of the country churches have a ritualized formula for their homecomings: Sunday school may or may not be held; a lengthy morning worship service; the dinner; and an afternoon program usually featuring singing and maybe with a Gospel band.
Present times do not embrace “all-day meetings” and the members and visitors can be seen leaving in their automobiles as the afternoon meeting begins. For the country churches, homecomings also afforded an opportunity for individuals and families to decorate the graves in the church cemetery.
At some point during a Homecoming Day, most of the people in attendance will have found a moment to rededicate themselves within the deep recesses of their soul to the faith of their fathers and mothers, to the reasons why a Christian church was planted in their home community, and to the life of a practicing Christian.
They will resolve in their own hearts and minds to keep the faith alive for the coming generations. They will remember those who have formed that great host of witnesses, unseen but present nonetheless, who have “gone to that place where congregations never break up and Sabbaths, dear sweet wonderful Sabbaths like the Homecoming Day, never come to an end.”