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Pastor Marcus LeeDuring Black History Month in February, people often take the opportunity to delve into the numerous contributions African Americans have made locally and throughout the nation.

But, as one prominent member of the black community said recently, African Americans are contributing across Fluvanna County every day.

On Sunday (Feb. 12) at New Fork Baptist Church near Cohasset, the vitality and warmth of one black community was felt through gospel music, inspired preaching, and a ceaseless flow of welcoming hugs and handshakes.

“Every day is black history day, as far as I’m concerned,” Pastor Marcus Lee, Sr., told his congregation. “It’s not just 28 days. I’m living the reality of it.” Laughter and a resounding chorus of “amen” showed his parishioners felt the same way.

Lee spoke passionately about taking a stand for what is right. Most of the early leaders of the Christian faith faced opposition, and if his congregation follows suit, he said, “Let me tell you, you’re gonna be the topic of someone’s phone call, text messages, or dinner conversation.”

Several prayers, upbeat songs, and the communion ritual drove home his message as about 75 attendees called out their agreement to take a stand – and not just when nobody’s watching.

150 years old
Lee has only been New Fork’s pastor since November, he said, but the church has been around much longer than that. New Fork will celebrate its 150th birthday on June 11 at 11 a.m.

In fact, all around the county black churches are turning 150 years old, said Roger Smith, 35, who lives off Shores Road and works for the county as a utilities specialist. Smith said he has been attending New Fork all his life.

After the end of the Civil War, many of the freed slaves in Fluvanna established their own churches, Smith said.

New Fork started as a white church, Smith said. “A lot of the people in this community came from either Bremo or Shores Plantation,” he said. But when the white church disbanded, the building was given to the freed slaves, Smith said.

“They took it apart and moved it here,” Smith said. The building used to stand on Old Fork Lane, he said. The new church building now sits on New Fork Church Lane.

Horace Scruggs, a music teacher at Fluvanna County High School, talked about why so many black churches are turning 150 years old.

“A lot of the black churches in Fluvanna were built during Reconstruction,” he said. “Mostly they were African American churches that separated from white churches. During slavery, blacks and whites went to church together. Slaves and slave owners were fellow parishioners. If you go around to a lot of the white churches, you’ll find that they have balconies – where the slave community would sit during the church services.”

Fluvanna has 11 independent black Baptist churches, Scruggs said, and many of them are right around the corner from each other. Often they are within five miles, he said. “Five miles – that was a good Sunday’s walk,” he said. The parishioners walked to church and therefore couldn’t go far. “That’s why there are so many.”

Many of Fluvanna’s black churches keep in close contact with each other, said Smith, who for four years served as vice president of Fluvanna Sunday School Union.

Ten of those churches regularly meet each fifth Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon, Smith said. The choir of the host church, which rotates, puts on the music. Each church gives a presentation and usually a speaker, often a politician or a public figure, talks for a while.

“People take the opportunity to inform the church members because Fifth Sundays cover the whole county,” Smith said.

Gospel music
Deborah Payne, 61, of Fork Union, plays the piano and leads the choir for New Fork.

Using a single keyboard on Sunday, Payne played a drum track, organ notes, and piano chords while she sang into her headset, leading the choir and regularly punctuating the pastor’s sermon with music.

Payne has played piano at New Fork for 15 or 16 years, she said, and has also led music at Byrd Grove Baptist Church, Evergreen Baptist Church, West Bottom Baptist Church, County Line Baptist Church, Cloverdale Baptist Church, and Second Union Baptist Church in Goochland.

She’s full time at New Fork now, she said, though she also does individual engagements.

“I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old,” Payne said. “It’s just a gift.”

Gesturing to her keyboard, she said, “People call it my own little band. It’s not hard, you just gotta know what you’re doing.”

But that doesn’t mean Payne doesn’t practice. “I work hard at what I do,” she said. “You’ve got to have a passion for it. You’ve really got to know what you’re doing. I may be up at 4 or 5 in the morning getting my music in. I see the sun rise. When everyone else is asleep, I’m working my music.”

Payne didn’t always receive accolades for her musical talent. “My aunt sent me to music lessons when I was a girl,” she said. “But rest her soul, my music teacher told my aunt that she was wasting her money, because, see, I wasn’t really paying attention. I was supposed to be practicing every day – which I didn’t. I had my music book and she was trying to teach me this song. So what I would do is 10 minutes before I had to go to my lesson, I would remember what she told me and play it. I wanted to play by ear.”

No one should doubt Payne’s talent now. Every Thursday she practices with about 13 members in either a men’s or a combined choir. “I hand them music sheets so they can see the words, and I work with them to teach them songs,” she said. “I open in prayer, and if we’re going to learn new songs, I’ll do them first.”

Payne finds new material off YouTube or a televised gospel station that plays 24 hours a day. “I sit down and listen to songs,” she said. “That’s my passion. I want [the choir] to do the best they can do. I stay on them all the time. I’m dedicated to what I do and I don’t play around. I’m here to do what I was sent here to do and use my gift that God has given me.”
Now she’s looking to put together a new gospel group. “If you can’t carry a tune, though, maybe the choir’s not for you,” she said frankly. “I need some dedicated people that I can depend on that can sing. I want them to know what they’re singing about.”

Singers willing to dedicate themselves to the new endeavor are encouraged to call Payne at 434-260-2763.

Scruggs, a Fluvanna native, said gospel music is all over the county. Fluvanna’s black churches “are very much steeped in spirituals and the early gospel music of the 1920s and ‘30s. Some churches are doing more of the praise style, but even still it has its gospel flavors,” he said.

Gospel sounds come out even in old hymns. “These European hymns, they take them and move them into the dialect and meter of African music,” Scruggs said.
Scruggs didn’t learn how to read music until college, and when he did, he was in for a surprise. “I’d look at the page and read the music, and it didn’t match up with what I was singing,” he said. “Very cool.”

How to participate
New Fork livestreams its services to its Facebook page and records them for people who want to participate after the fact, Smith said.

The church meets at 11 a.m. on the first, second, third and fourth Sundays and at 8:30 a.m. on first, third and fifth Sundays for a “trimmed-down” service called Hour Power, Smith said.
Gary Bruce, 62, who lives off of Stage Junction Road, said he was originally a member of Byrd Grove but started attending New Fork with his wife when she “won” the battle of which church they would attend.

He invited members of the community to join him on March 19 at 3 p.m. at the church for a “powerful” gospel concert.

“I come here because I grew up believing in God. My parents gave that to me,” Bruce said. “I enjoy the fellowship, the relationship.”