Unexpected Journey

Date

September 30th was a beautiful day at Legacy Park in Decatur. Compassion Con 2023 had just ended. It was an awesome event–lots of sun, lots of friendly people, lots of interesting things to learn. As we  were packing up to leave, my dad’s good friend and Decatur resident David asked us a surprising question.

“Hey, guys, I want to ask you something. Would you come to my church right now for just a minute? I want to show you something.”

Now, my mom, my dad, and I were very tired, very sweaty, and very ready to go home for the evening. It was a strange request for David to make at the end of a long, busy day at Compassion Con, but it seemed very important to him. David’s church, Columbia Presbyterian (near Columbia Seminary), is very close to Legacy Park, really about a block away, so we said yes.

When we got there we followed David into the sanctuary. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and the sanctuary was quiet and so peaceful. We were the only ones in the room, the sun was glistening off the huge windows, yet the room was growing dusky and sleepy in the late afternoon.

“I want to show you these banners,” David said and pointed to a large banner on the wall near where we were standing. It was a piece of art depicting Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. I couldn’t tell if the fabric had been painted or if it had been dyed and cut to create the images. It was beautiful and very moving, but I was still not sure why David was showing the banners to us. “Look at all of them.”

There were three on each of the side walls of the sanctuary, each one placed between huge, sunny windows. The banners almost looked like murals on the walls, but they were pieces of art made of fabric, each one a different scene from the Bible.

The banner next to Adam and Eve was of Isaiah, and the next one was Micah.  On the opposite wall were Mary with the angel Gabriel, Mary with the Christ child, and the shepherds following the star over Bethlehem.

My dad was admiring them too when David asked my dad, “Have you ever seen these before?”

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember ever seeing these”

“I think your mom might  have made these.” David said to my dad.

“Are you kidding?” My father was surprised and a bit taken aback. He immediately took a picture of one of the banners and texted it to his mom.

My grandmother, who is now 92,  texted back, “That is one of the banners I made. Where did you find this?” Apparently the banners’ whereabouts had been unknown for a long time. How did my grandmother’s banners from a small town in East Tennessee, make their way to a church in the heart of Decatur, Georgia?

The History of the Banners

My grandmother, Patricia Moore Freels, is an artist and has been her whole life. She is from Miami originally but married my grandfather in 1953. They settled down in his hometown, Morristown, Tennessee. My grandmother was a wife, a mother of four children, and even an art teacher for a bit. But she was always an artist. In 1976 (when my dad was away at college) she created a series of fabric banners for her church’s Vacation Bible School that summer.  But being a for-real artist, she couldn’t make just simple banners for the children. Instead, she created 12 beautiful pieces of art, each one unique, vibrant, and engaging. She used a process known as Batik.  According to dictionary.com batik is “a technique of hand-dyeing fabrics by using wax as a dye repellent to cover parts of a design, dyeing the  uncovered fabric with a color or colors, and dissolving the wax in boiling water.” That is the one-sentence definition.

Batik is a complex process that is very labor intensive. But the final product is impressive beyond words.

My grandmother loves to learn new ways to create art. She often traveled from Morristown to Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. What is now Arrowmont began in 1912 as a settlement school established to serve children in Gatlinburg who had no access to public education. In 1926 the Arrowcraft Shop opened selling Appalachian arts and crafts. By 1945 the school began offering Appalachian arts and crafts workshops which were so successful that by 1967 the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts officially opened.  So by the 1970s my grandmother was a regular student at Arrowmont taking a variety of classes including a class in Batik.  It was at Arrowmont that she learned the techniques to make these banners.

The History Becomes a Mystery

So how did the banners from First Presbyterian Church in Morristown, Tennessee end up in Columbia Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia?  My grandmother has no idea. The banners were enjoyed and used in Morristown for several years. At some point they were put in storage, and my grandmother is not sure what happened after that. Ministers at her church changed and went to other churches, the banners were borrowed from time to time by other churches to be used for special services, but the exact location of the 12 banners gradually faded from memory.  Kind of like “out of sight, out of mind.” And the years began to go by.

My dad had never seen the banners and had no knowledge of them. Shortly after my parents were married in 1987, they moved to Atlanta before my sister and I were born. Dad’s friend David moved back to Atlanta in 1995 and then began attending Columbia Presbyterian Church. Several years after he began attending, the banners were mounted on the walls of the sanctuary. David and the members of the congregation fell in love with them, and the banners have become very meaningful to them and an important part of their worship experience. So the banners have continued to hang in the sanctuary since the late 1990s. Sometime along the line, a person from Morristown who was working at Columbia Presbyterian suggested that he thought they were made by Pat Freels. But he wasn’t sure and David wasn’t sure, so the mystery remained a mystery.

The Mystery Becomes a  Blessing

David was hesitant to show us the banners. He was anxious that my dad would be upset that he did not tell my dad about the banners until now. But I said, “It’s ok. It’s all in God’s timing.” My parents reassured him as well. We can’t do anything about the time that has passed, but we can enjoy the banners now. My grandmother was overjoyed to learn that at least six of them are safe and are being cared for in a church where they are much beloved.

“How they got there doesn’t matter now,” my grandmother told David, “These are helping people where they are now. God knew what He was doing.”

Pastor Tom Hagood

In December I got to meet with Tom Hagood, the pastor at Columbia Presbyterian Church. He has been serving at Columbia since August of 2000. Ironically, in about 2004 or 2005, Pastor Tom found the banners in the one place my grandmother did not want them to be–stored away in a box. So he hung them in the sanctuary where they have been ever since. They have become a part of the church. Church members and visitors often comment about the beauty of the banners and ask questions, especially wanting to know who made them. Now Pastor Tom will know the  answer. It is wonderful to know the banners have survived all these years. Pastor Tom said “The banners are part of the life of this church, and now they have come alive again.”

So my grandmother’s banners are blessing people she will never meet. The banners with their vivid colorful images frozen in time are like stained glass windows inspiring and teaching Bible stories to future generations and now, as Pastor Tom wisely observed, “We are all woven into the same story.” Seeing my grandmother’s art that warm September afternoon at first seemed like happenstance–-but now I know it was not.

I saw her artwork by divine appointment.

More on Pastor Tom Hagood: Reverend Hagood also “has a passion for working with the homeless and with organizations striving to prevent homelessness, including Decatur Cooperative Ministry and Our House.”

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