Mussellfork church plant mixes present, past
CHARITON COUNTY – Rick Hall is a modern-day circuit riding preacher. After all, like the circuit riders of days gone by, he too travels from congregation to congregation. Hall spends his Sunday mornings at First Baptist Church of Keytesville and rumbles down State Highway O 20 miles that night to lead worship at a new church plant, Musselfork Community Church.
The site where the Mussellfork church meets has a heritage to match the anachronism of a circuit riding preacher in 2006. Though the church plant is less than one year old, they meet in a church building with more than 125 years of history.
The church was originally constructed in 1899 as the Musselfork Union Church. Since qualified pastors of various denominations were in short supply, it was common for a community to construct a “union church,” where each denomination took a certain Sunday of the month and scheduled their circuit rider to come in. The first week was the Baptist week, the second Methodist and the third Pentecostal Holiness. The fourth or fifth Sunday was up for grabs depending on who could schedule a preacher. No one is sure of its exact denominational history, but it officially disbanded in the late 1960s.
As a bi- (or tri-) vocational pastor who worked construction and drove a school bus, in addition to pastoring at Keytesville, Hall noticed the historic abandoned building of the Musselfork church on his bus route every morning for years.
“Every time I would drive by, I would tell myself ‘There needs to be a church there,’” he said.
Though what used to be the town of Musselfork and its “twin city” across Highway O, Pee Dee, now have populations of zero, Hall figures there are more than 2,000 people within 10 miles of the site.
“Seventy-five percent of the people in our demographic study were in between the ages of 18 and 65. It’s prime area.”
A horse whispering event two months ago drew more than 200 people to the church. However, things haven’t always looked so rosy, even in the “new” church’s short history.
“When we launched last November, we didn’t have electricity or heat,” Hall said. “We just had an old building with raccoons and possums. We could hear critters crawling and growling under the old pews so when we prayed, we prayed with one eye open. It was cold and miserable but it was fun and exciting.”
Thanks to Hall’s expertise in construction (and a member’s skill in trapping game), the church now has electricity, a furnace, a propane tank, new gravel in the parking lot, temporary new ceilings and walls and a diminishing indoor wildlife population (the last count was 16 raccoons and possums). With the original 107-year-old floor, creaking walls and a bell tower leaning 18 inches to the North, he should be busy for a while. With the exception of the bell tower/original entryway, Hall and other contractors have determined the building is safe to occupy.
The property was originally deeded to the trustees of the original Union church and their successors, though 100 years later it was hard to tell just who the legal owners were. A trip to a real estate lawyer and a deed search later, the new church now holds the deed to the building and property.
“The people who had any connection to it in the past, whether they were relatives or personally had some connection were all excited,” Hall said. “We talked to several of them to see if anyone had any objections about us taking the church over and opening back up, but everyone was very excited for us. In fact, you go anywhere in Chariton County and they’re talking about this church – and whether or not we’re going to get it open.”
There have been several attempts to restore the site as a house of worship, most recently as a non-denominational church in the 1980s. However it too soon dried up. But with the help of the Missouri Baptist Convention, Mt. Pleasant, Mt. Zion, Monroe Baptist Association and several sponsoring churches, Hall says God won’t let that happen again.
And efforts are being made to tell the community just that. Mussellfork has raised 60 percent of the funds needed for a new roof and Heritage Baptist Church in Columbia, itself still a young church plant, recently painted the peeling siding.
“The members here feel those two things will show to the community that we’re here to stay,” Hall said. “We are going to bring this church back.”
Slowly but surely, the community is responding. Hall said there are only about five “core” members plus several who visit from the community. Two people who drove by and noticed the painting underway on a recent hot Sunday afternoon showed up later for the worship service – their first time at a church they’ve been living near all their lives.
“There’s a real attitude of ‘will they last?’” he said. “I think the more we show people we’re here to stay, the more they’ll warm up to us. They’re dyed-in-the-wool Missourians: Show me.”