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‘Living by Faith,’ Old Nonconnah resumes in-church worship on 152nd anniversary

Closed for two-plus years out of concern about the pandemic, Old Nonconnah Missionary Baptist Church recently resumed in-person services, celebrating its 152nd anniversary.

The congregation’s return to their worship home on Aug. 21 was a jubilant and memorable experience, one church leader said. Congregants had not worshipped in their sanctuary since March 15, 2020. 

“It was wonderful, being back together after two years of Sunday School and Bible Study on conference calls,” said Leroy Smith, a trustee. “It was such a joy. We were all so grateful to celebrate another anniversary.”

The church is at 3257 Hernando Rd. just west of the Elvis Presley Boulevard and Brooks Road intersection. 

Not even a menacing downpour dampened the spirits of those who filled the sanctuary.

Pictured (l-r): Leroy Smith, Florida Smith, Minister Bertha Looney, Jack Payne, Elder Ruby Payne and Dorothy Upshaw. (Photos: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

“It began to rain very hard, but people kept coming,” said Smith. “It was a miracle. We always celebrate church anniversary on the third Sunday in August. “My great-great grandfather, Wyatt Fields, and the other five founders would have been proud to see us worshipping this past Sunday.”

Founded by six former slaves, Nonconnah sits on its original site. During the antebellum period, slaves built open-sided structures with planks of wood driven into the ground, supporting a roof of branches and brush, laid on top of horizontal planks. 

Such places of worship were called bush arbors. Or “hush harbors,” because they were secret gathering places by night, where slaves could practice their own brand of religion, Christianity infused with a sacred mix of African ritual.

One of the other five founders, Freeman Lawson, was the great-grandfather of Bertha Rogers Looney, a “Memphis State Eight” pioneer.

“Our family has worshipped here, down through the generations,” said Looney. “I have joined another church, but I have relatives who are still members. This is our family church…”

It is not known where the six founders came from originally.

Besides Fields and Lawson, the other founders were Joseph Robinson, Tanzy Tanner, Alfred Washington, and Samuel D. Washington, said Smith.

“Wherever they came from, when they got here, they decided to start a church.”

Old Nonconnah MBC attendees were observing mask protocols during the first in-person service following a long closure prompted by COVID concerns. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

Nonconnah’s pastor, Rev. John Andrew Harris, died suddenly just before the pandemic. 

“Pastor Harris had been our pastor for 23 years. He was diabetic, and at some point, had one of his legs amputated,” said Smith. “But he was doing fine, still preaching and still doing the work of a pastor. Then on Nov. 21, 2019, … he went to sleep and never woke up….”

When the pandemic hit, the search for a new pastor was suspended. Smith went from trustee to acting pastor.

“We wanted to be CDC-compliant, so we didn’t come back to the church building after that March 15 service,” said Smith. “We held Sunday School, Bible Study, and 11 a.m. worship every first Sunday on conference call. Some members caught the virus, but there was no loss of life. We thank God for that.”

Members still are buried in their ancestral cemetery, where their fore-parents are. It is situated on the southwest corner of the church. Burial places face the east, just as they did when the founders started Nonconnah.

“All the graves face the east,” said Smith. “Jesus will return from the east. I can remember being a boy of eight and nine years old. I would help my uncles dig graves. But now, we have a backhoe to do that.”

Deacon Board Chairman Isaiah Tate Jr., 87, is the great-grandson of co-founder Wyatt Fields. 

The search for a new pastor has resumed. There are 20 candidates, Smith said.

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