“For where two or three are gathered in my name....”
Outside the tiny white Delina Church of God, birds chirp and the air smells fresh save for the slight tinge of manure from a dairy farm.
The church is near the crossroads of Delina Road and John Barnes Road, where its doors have been opened since 1927, one of three churches within a quarter-mile of each other. A Church of Christ and a Methodist church are nearby.
Inside the Church of God’s sanctuary, James and Elvaleen Trivitt sit on one of the pews by one of the church’s narrow windows of blue glass. He’s been the pastor for the past 33 years. Elvaleen has been the dutiful pastor’s wife, by her husband’s side to lend a hand. The problem is their church has only seven regular attendees, including them.
“There’s three churches right down through here. Small churches. And about any Sunday, unless somethin’ real special is going on you can put em’ all in half of one of the buildings,” James Trivitt said.
It is estimated that 4,000 churches each year close their doors. Many are like the Church of God where the Trivitts say membership is mostly comprised of older people who are passing away at a higher rate than new attendees come in.
About two years ago, a member of the Church of God became terminally ill and he asked Rev. Trivitt to promise he wouldn’t let the church doors close, but Trivitt couldn’t make that promise because the church needs money to run. Trivitt, ever an optimist said the situation was dire. Making such a promise would be a hard one to keep considering the few folks who were sitting in the pews every Sunday.
A year after that church member died the Trivitts were summoned to a local bank where they learned that their departed member had willed a $200,000 certificate of deposit to the church as a way to keep it open.
With a large chunk of the money, the church built a new building, small but able to accommodate a 100 or more. The Trivitts are hopeful.
“I think it’s going to run, even if I’m gone I think (God) wants it, because he’s put it there, he’s built it, we don’t have any debts. I don’t think it’s closing up,” the pastor said.
Trivitt has been a Pastor since 1984. The church started in 1927 but the newly constructed Church of God has been standing for about 18 months now and they had a healthy membership up until the last 15 years or so.
Yet the Trivitts are faithful and determined to keep the church alive, just as they have kept their marriage together 60 years come next February.
The pair, both from upper East Tennessee, met in Johnson City, where Elvaleen was working in a five and dime store.
“Now, what is it? What was the store?” Trivitt asked as he nudged his wife playfully.
“McClellan’s,” Elvaleen answered with a smile.
“McClellan’s, and she was standing there and I said ‘huh,’ I knew I’d seen her before, but I never, you know, just ridin’ around,” the pastor said.
“And, it stuck,” he said, smiling.
The pastor was in the Army and is a Korean War vet. He was stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for awhile to go to school, and every weekend he was able to go home and Elvaleen was always there waiting for him.
“The whole thing, and I’ll be honest with you now, God was putting us together,” James said.
James is actually one year younger than Elvaleen. He is 82 while she is 83, but the way they look at each other you would think they were newlyweds in their twenties.
The pastor knows he has days where he can’t make it to service, but despite Elvaleen telling him not to push himself he still does.
They love attending the small Delina Church.
“He don’t drive very much. He has had a stroke in one eye and his retina parted,” Elvaleen said.
“I went three years ago probably, or something like that. I couldn’t even see,” James said while leaning into Elvaleen.
“She’s still holding my hand.”
According to the Barna Group, a company that does research on religion and church life, one in three U.S. adults practice their faith regularly and that is good news for the Delina Church of God, because of almost half of American churchgoers, 46 percent, attend churches with 100 or fewer attendees.
The pastor acknowledges seven is a long way from 100, but he has faith that the church was built and people will come.
“If you come up here you’ll learn to hear the truth. I’ll tell you what it’s all about and I will show you the way but you’re the one that has to make the choice,” he said.
Steve Barnum is a journalism student at Middle Tennessee State University. He was one of several students who spent a week in Marshall County writing stories for the Marshall County Tribune.