For over 190 years, the people of Perry County, Alabama have been working hard. Farmers have been raising crops, teachers have been shaping lives, preachers have been saving souls and mothers and fathers have been doing their best to provide for their families… Perry County, Alabama was founded on December 13, 1819. And, since that time, it has remained an area rich in cultural traditions and the strength of its people. Unfortunately, this is a community in dire need, confronted with economic stagnation, declining population and insufficient health care and schools. This is their story.
Meet Esmer Davis.
In the early, grey morning about the time fog becomes dew and the daylilies perform their ritual greeting of the sun, Reverend Esmer Davis goes to work. It’s been a long day already for the old man. He’s been on the road for over an hour and he still has a ways to go.
The church has stood on this spot on County Road 83 for a long time. In 1876, a white man, Mr. Hal Wallace, gave three black families two acres on which they could build a place to worship. Marietta Methodist Church began as a small, wooden chapel in the middle of a field, and the first services were held on a cold winter’s Sunday in 1877. About 50 people filled this room that first Lord’s day. Since then, the names of members have changed, but their reason for being remains as solid as the church’s front door. Reverend Davis smiles, “This is a small place,” he says, “but the Spirit here is large.”
He begins his day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He eats a light breakfast, irons a shirt, polishes his black shoes and shaves his determined face. In another time and in another place, Esmer might have been a great athlete or a hero in a foreign war. With a face like his, he could have even been in the movies. But not today. Today is Sunday, and he’s going to Marietta.
The building has changed a bit over the past 128 years: cinder blocks have replaced the old, wooden frame. A tiny cross rests atop a shingled roof and the four small windows are now covered in plastic. The aisles of the church are carpeted in red, and the interior walls are paneled with cherry-stained wood. This is his church. Marietta.
A small space heater sits, glowing at the church entrance. Another points to the back door, but still Esmer’s breath plumes and drifts away as fast as it comes. He sits at his aluminum, schoolhouse desk and prays aloud: “Father, bless this place. Come to us today and let your light shine in this church, Lord…”
There is a knock at the door and Reverend Davis jumps to see a young girl anxiously dancing back and forth in the tiny doorway. The only toilet within a mile of the church sits in Esmer’s office. After spending 90 minutes singing and bellowing a message from Isaiah, Reverend Davis calls for an offering from his congregation. Thirteen dollars are collected and passed to their leader. With a grateful heart, Esmer places three more dollars in an Atlanta Braves baseball cap and prays that God will bless the monies received on this day.
The sun has now returned to the west and Esmer Davis is on his way home. He’s been on the road for over an hour and he still has a ways to go.
Meet Georgia Green.
More stories from “The Blackbelt” coming soon.
Part of “the blackbelt” and just 45 minutes outside of Birmingham, Perry County is the 11th poorest county in America. Helping to tell their story has been one of the most heartbreaking, encouraging, empowering and enlightening experiences of my career. To find out how you can help folks like Reverend Davis, click here.