MOORESVILLE – A lot has changed in the Lake Norman region since Percell Vanderburg was young.
The 86-year-old remembers when neither Lake Norman nor Interstate 77 existed.
“They told my cousin there was going to be a new highway coming through, and all of the stores in Mooresville was going to move out on that new highway,” Percell said. “But, you know, people didn’t believe it. It’s just like when Noah said it was going to rain.”
But one thing that has remained constant in Percell’s life is Morrows Chapel United Methodist Church.
Morrows Chapel UMC, founded in 1872 and located at 1536 Brawley School Road, is one of the oldest churches in the Mooresville area. It was once home to one of the first African-American schools in the area, also called Morrows Chapel.
Percell has been a lifelong member of the church, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandmother, who was a former slave, as well as his mother and siblings.
“They were all members here,” Percell said.
Percell’s nephew, Melvin, said he remembered hearing stories from his grandmother about how the church began.
“They used to go down there by the arbor – there used to be some trees around down there,” Melvin said of the first gathering place. “And they used to go down there, and that’s when they had service, out by the trees.”
But, as the church celebrates its 146th anniversary this year, both members and the church’s pastor, Dr. Bill White, are struggling to keep the church relevant while still maintaining its traditions.
“So how do you minister in today’s society and age and make those changes and maintain the tradition,” White asked, “but at the same time create that with the new understanding of what church is today?”
What it was
Andy Poore, curator of special collections for the Mooresville Public Library, said before the church was formally established, its first members met in homes or in bushes.
The land for the church was donated by a family named either Morrow or Morrows – the handwriting on the original deed isn’t completely legible.
“So that’s how they got their name,” Poore said.
The namesake family donated four acres to start the church, and members later raised enough money to buy three more acres from the family.
The original four acres housed the arbor, where services were held before the church was built and where camp meeting services are still held today. A church building was later built beside the arbor and, beginning around the 1920s, a Rosenwald school was built on the remaining acreage. The old church and school have since been torn down.
“Mr. Rosenwald went around and gave money to establish black schools all over the South, particularly in North Carolina,” Poore said. “Iredell actually had 12 of them.”
Research shows the N.F. Woods campus and a now-private home on N.C. 3 used to be Rosenwald schools.
“And then, of course, Morrows Chapel was one,” Poore said.
Percell attended the school, along with many of his 11 brothers and sisters.
“When I went to school here, as far as I can remember, it was one of the members, he had a horse and wagon,” Percell said. “And that’s what we used to come to church (in.)”
For his first nine years of life, Percell lived about a mile from Morrows Chapel UMC.
His father was one of the first African-American cab drivers in the area.
“People didn’t have cars, most of them,” Percell said of his childhood in the 1930s. “We were kind of fortunate, because my dad had a car. But he used it for business all the time. And he had to walk most of the places he went. We used to walk up here.”
On Sundays, when he would ride in a horse-drawn wagon to church, Percell recalled watching people tie their horses to pegs nailed into a tree that still stands in front of the church.
“But the tree in the last 10 years has grown out over those pegs,” Percell said. “They’re still in the tree. That’s where they used to hook up the horses.”
Many of the church’s members walked, since all of the members lived close enough to do it and some of them didn’t have other methods of transportation.
“And that is a walk,” Percell said. “If you walk back through there as far as you can, to the water, then you’d realize how they used to walk and get here on Sunday.”
Percell remembers there being five or six families who regularly attended church when he was a child.
“And on Sundays, we’d have just about a church full,” Percell said. “Because you didn’t have ball games and horse races and all that stuff.”
“You didn’t have television to keep them at home,” Melvin added.
“So Sunday was a chance to get out and see people,” Percell said. “That was about the only time you saw people, was on Sunday.”
What it is
White, who has been pastor of Morrows Chapel for about a year and a half, said the church now has 35 regular members and anywhere between 35 and 50 people who attend services.
The church is housed in a newer building, built in the 1950s and 1960s on the three additional acres church members purchased.
“And I will tell you we have one family who are Caucasian, who are members,” White said. “Then there’s another Caucasian family who’s been coming regularly for the past year, and they’re probably going to join soon. And so it’s become a more diverse congregation just in recent months.”
White said one of the most challenging parts of his job has been trying to grow the congregation while maintaining its legacy and traditions.
“We have a traditional church,” White said. “And this is not just for Morrows Chapel. I think you will find many of the mainline churches experiencing this, especially with millennials and post-millenials. How do they understand church and music and worship and technology and how all of these things play into that?”
Morrows Chapel is also now in a different demographic setting than it once was. Members of the church all lived nearby for much of the church’s history, but many children of those families have moved away and no longer attend.
“They were family churches,” White said of historic churches in the area. “It has a tremendous impact on the vitality of today’s church. They have to drive in now. They’re not down the street. So it’s about expanding our relationship with the new community.”
The new community includes more racial and economic diversity, with Morrows Chapel being less than two miles away from Trump National Golf Course and even closer to the beginning of the upscale neighborhood The Point.
“I think for us, it presents unique challenges and unique opportunities as well,” White said. “What do you do when the community around you changes and becomes more diverse, and the membership has moved away and other generations are in other places? … And our seniors here are witnessing a part of that history and sharing it in a leadership way.”
When asked if they were excited about the challenges and changes the church is experiencing, neither Melvin or Percell had anything to say.
But they did smile.