By Terrilynn Grace West
This is the second in a series addressing spiritual wellness, featuring churches on Ocracoke. Last month I wrote about the United Methodist Church. If you visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse, and continue on that road, you will see on the left the new (as of 2004) Assembly of God Church. Interestingly, you may have noticed the old church which was bought and moved to Highway 12 becoming a rental cottage through Ocracoke Island Realty. This older church was the first sanctuary built in 1941 by Stanford Jackson and other men from the church.
Even before there was a church building, worship services were held in yards, porches and homes of the congregation recounts Joyce Spencer, a native Ocracoker, “back in the early 30s, the first revivals were held in my Grandmother Mary Midgett’s front yard and led by Darcus Gray, Eva Dixon and Pearl Midgett who came to Ocracoke from Buxton.”
Chester Lynn, whose family grew up on Ocracoke dating back to the 1600s, recalls “my family would catch fish in the front yard” which is now the Back Road! Since Chester is an historian, he remembers clearly many of the details “Sis Liz” told him about the early days of the revival meetings. “The music and joy expressed (called “getting happy”) during those services resulted in attracting many people who filled the yard to overflowing,” he said. Chester remembers “Sis Liz was a great cook: Southern, twice as good as corn bread.”
If you visit the church you will see a wall leading into the sanctuary dedicated to the history of the church which Chester has helped create. Among the many pictures and documents, is an article by John T. O’Neal (Pastor Ivey’s grandfather): “How and when the Assembly of God Church was started on Ocracoke.”
John O’Neal says that in 1938 services were held in his grandmother Elizabeth Styron’s (known as Aunt Bett) front porch, and later as more room was needed her back porch was closed in. Lumber was hauled from the beach from the ship “Nomis” that went ashore in 1935 to build benches. It was Elizabeth Styron’s daughter Elizabeth Styron Meyers, known as ‘Aunt or Sis Liz’, who gave the land for the church where it stands today.
The new parsonage, says the pastor’s wife, Laura Belch with a smile on her face, is sometimes referred to as “Belch’s Inn” because of its open door friendliness for guidance and support. It is housed on the second floor of the present church. The lumber for the first parsonage, built in the late 40s, came from the old Pamlico Inn Hotel which came down in the 1944 hurricane. This parsonage burnt down in 1954. The second parsonage built in 1955 was bought, preserved and now stands behind the Pizza Company on Irvin Garrish Highway.
Pastor Ivey speaks of the Assembly of God Church as his “home church.” He grew up on Ocracoke, graduating with the high school class of 1994 and has fond memories of playing music with his grandfather in church. Ivey Belch then went to the University of North Carolina Charlotte and East Coast Bible College where he received a minister’s degree. His first appointment was in his grandmother’s home town of Askewville, NC, as a youth pastor. The minister of this church married his parents and then the minister’s son married Ivey and Laura in 1998 just before they moved back to Ocracoke. Ivey and Laura were active in the church, especially working with the youth, until in 2010, he was appointed the interim pastor, becoming the full time pastor January 2011.
He says he appreciates the tight knit closeness of the community and church. “For a smaller congregation, we support 10 missionaries overseas,” Ivey explained. Laura Belch is the “kids pastor,” and is active with the Sunday school classes, women’s Bible study class and generally serves as needed. Gail Allen, a relative newcomer, moved to Ocracoke four years ago and is on the “worship team,” she chooses both old and new hymns for the Sunday Service. Gail said, “Pastor Ivey is a wonderful pastor who has a strong relationship with the Lord and a good handle on scripture.” Gail quoted the Gospel of John 8:12 where Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world” and said she thinks of the church as being a “spiritual lighthouse” on Ocracoke.
Judy Garrish, native of Ocracoke, has served as a church board member in the past for 10 years. She says, “the Holy Spirit draws a person to church and changes your life; we welcome newcomers.” She and everyone I talked with stressed the importance of the Assembly of God church being Bible based. Joyce Spencer says, “I enjoy singing the songs in church; they are food for the soul.” When I attended a church service the beauty of the sanctuary, spirit of the music, the zealous preaching all helped me understand why folks I talked with said, “the presence of the Lord can be felt here.”
Terrilynn Grace West lives and works on Ocracoke providing warm water massage therapy. http://www.floatwithgrace.com.