Last member turns over keys to historic church

Published 3:43 pm Friday, February 24, 2012

When 87-year-old opera star Lucia Hawkins Brown looks around her living room full of memories   photos of her smiling with Lyndon B. Johnson, shaking the hand of an exuberant Richard Nixon or on stage with Johnny Carson, she remembers how she owes her start as a soloist to the Church of Christ, Scientist.

It’s that indebtedness, she said, that kept her taking care of the modest-sized First Church of Christ, Scientist, on Monroe Street long after it became vacant in 1995. That same endearment makes her eyes glow when she talks about the building’s ongoing renovation, even if her beloved church now belongs to Baptists.

“If we don’t do something, it will deteriorate. We don’t want it to fall down,” she said. “It s a nice church, and I m doing my best to hold onto it.”

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Hawkins Brown, the sole surviving member of a congregation that’s dwindled for the past 50 years, donated the church property Feb. 1 to her neighbor,” the Rev. James E. Williams.

Hawkins Brown got her professional singing start making $15 each Sunday as a soloist at a Christian Science church on 142nd Street in New York. From there she went to Broadway and around the world performing classics and show tunes. When she came home to Mississippi to take care of an ailing aunt, she joined the congregation of the Vicksburg church, which she believes dates to around 1910.

“It used to be a packed church,” she said.

It’s been the better part of two decades since the church saw any activity, let alone a full house. For the past 17 years, when her health allowed, Hawkins Brown cleaned the church and paid to have the lawn mowed. The water was turned off, so she took with her several gallon jugs of water so she could mop. She refused, however, to have the electricity cut off, and over the years, she has more than returned any money she made from the Sunday morning solos.

“That’s my contribution. Keeping the lights on is only $10 to $15, and I can do that because they helped me get my start,” she said.

Members of the Christian Science church, not to be confused with the Church of Scientology, believe in the Bible and rely heavily on the book “Science and Health’ by the movement s founder, Mary Baker Eddy. Members generally rely on prayer alone for healing, Hawkins Brown said.

 If you become spiritual enough and strong enough, this is your doctor right here,  she said, clutching her worn copy of  Science and Health.

She said most Christian Scientists visit doctors when their illness becomes bad enough, but prayer comes first.

In the church, services are divided between two people referred to as readers. Instead of a minister, the readers take turns leading the congregation in the weekly lesson. Because of that structure, shortly before the church shut down, no one was in the congregation to hear the readings, she said.

“If everything goes according to plan, the building soon will be the new home of Narrow Way Missionary Baptist Church,” the Rev. James E. Williams said.

The church currently meets at St. James Missionary Baptist Church on Adams Street while the Monroe Street location is being brought up to code.

 “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Williams said.

On Tuesday, Williams and his brothers-in-law, the Rev. Jesse Jones and Robert Jones, who are brothers, were studying how to repair the aging building’s roof. A leak has ruined some drywall and shingles, and a window is broken, but the building is mostly in sound shape, Williams said. The Jones brothers are performing most of the labor, Williams said, because he is unable do any heavy lifting.

“Without them, it wouldn t get done because I can’t physically do the work,” he said.

When his neighbor, Hawkins Brown, found he was looking to move his church into a permanent home, she suggested giving him the former Christian Science building. Despite his own health problems, he said, he couldn’t resist taking on the project because going to church and ministry is therapeutic.

“I can’t give up. I love God too much, and he’s done too much for me,” Williams said.

The church has only a handful of members, and once the building has been revamped, it will more than meet the needs of the congregation and give plenty of room for growth, he said. Narrow Way will celebrate its third anniversary in March.

“ We just want a building where we can meet on Sundays and serve the Lord and fellowship,” he said. ‘We’re just poor country people. That’s all we know.”

It is not uncommon for Christian Science churches to be sold or repurposed after the congregation is dissolved. This past July, The Birmingham (Ala.,) News reported the sale of a large Christian Scientist church after the congregation dwindled from its peak size of 400 members to fewer than 100.