‘You got to get to heaven from down here’
The sandy road to Bethel AME Church in rural Pike County takes visitors back to yesteryear.
Back to a time when singing was all acapella and the voices were the instruments. Back to a time when Alice Mae Cowart was a young girl. Even then, she knew all the church songs “by heart” and she sang them from the heart.
That was more years than Alice Mae can remember but, the songs? She remembers them every one.
“You can forget a lot of things but you don’t forget the church songs,” she said. “They stay in your heart, deep in your heart, always.”
On the second Sunday in June, the matriarch of the Cowart family leads her children, grandchildren and “the greats” down the aisle of the historic country church, singing praises “to His name.”
“I came up singing and I brought my children up singing. All God’s children need to sing,” Alice Mae said. “I came up singing without music being played and my children did, too. And, that’s important, because, when it’s just the words, you can understand them better. And the church is the dressing up room ’cause you got to get to heaven from down here.”
Alice Mae Cowart’s family made its way down the church aisle on the second Sunday in June singing praises to God. They took their places in the choir loft just as they have done, some of them for 50 years and more. Mother Cowart led her children, seven daughters and one son, their spouses and 15 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren as they are able to come.
“We can’t always all be here but those who can come do because this is a very special time for all of us,” Alice Mae said. “Our family gets together at other times and we always sing but, the second Sunday in June is the time that we come to the church to sing praises. If nobody was here but us, it would be just as special. The Lord hears you wherever you sing His praises but here in His house, with our family together, I can’t say what it means to me, to all of us. I don’t know the words.”
Few words were spoken, but near the close of the song service, Leon Cowart expressed a desire to speak, just briefly.
“I was remembering a time when we came to this church and it would be packed with worshipers and back then there weren’t even any screens on the windows,” Cowart said. “It would be so hot that men would fall to their knees and somebody would lift them up and stand them back in the choir so they could sing again. Now, we have all these comforts. It’s cool inside the church and the pews have soft cushions but the pews are not filled. It should not be like that. Why is it that way now?”
Cowart said the church has been, and is, a guiding light in his life but, added that, these days, it’s too often hard to remember the words the preachers say, the messages they bring.
“But the words of those old church songs are strong in my mind and on my heart,” he said.
“When life just gets too hard, when there are trials and tribulations, when I my head gets down and I can’t pick it up, it’s these old church songs, these spirituals, that pick me up and get me through those times. You can forget a preacher’s word but these old church songs will come back to you and guide you in times of need, in all times.”
Cowart said he is blessed to have a mama and a family that sings the old songs.
Alice Mae Cowart said her life has been lived with a song in her heart and with the knowledge that, after it all, her day of joy is coming.
“And, we should all remember that,” she said. “As the song says, ‘This life is filled with sorrow here below. So many disappointments, pain and woe. But in that land out yonder to which I go, joy is coming, coming after a while.’ But, just know, ‘you got to get to heaven from down here.’”