"Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love,
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above" - John Fawcett, 1772
Beach Baptist Chapel on St. Joe Beach was my home church for many years, and I still consider it home. We joined that little church in 1976, when it was a simple white wooden structure with a few tiny outbuildings and squeaky screen doors, and it wasn’t long before I understood there was something special about that place. Inside its small sanctuary with its creaky old pews and small congregation who came so faithfully to sing, keep nursery, teach Sunday school and listen to the preacher’s sermons, we became part of a family.
A grandmotherly figure in the family was Mrs. Rochelle Jackson. She played the organ or piano for us each Sunday morning, her sweet, trilling voice barely audible over her instrument. We sang along with her to the old hymns of faith such as Rock of Ages, Amazing Grace, and Victory in Jesus. Mrs. Jackson and her tiny dog were regulars at the church, as she was also our church secretary, typing out the bulletins and printing them, keeping the pastor’s schedule, answering calls and myriad other tasks.
I would often stop in to say hello to her when I was out riding my bike around the neighborhood. I knew Mrs. Jackson was there if I saw her old car, a well-kept Ford Falcon, I believe, in the parking area. She always wore a dress, hose, and sensible shoes, had her gray hair in a neat bun, and had a smile for me and a few kind words in her measured, ladylike voice. She was like the wise, kind matriarch of our small church family. In fact, the tree that is on the church property on the corner of Desoto Street and Alabama Avenue was planted for Mrs. Jackson in the 1980s; she chose the tiny tree, and it was dedicated informally by those of us who helped plant it in her honor. She would be so pleased to see how large it grew; you can see it in the photo here, which was taken the week after Hurricane Michael.
I remember one Sunday when I was a teenager our pastor suggested that we begin singing a song called “Blest Be the Tie” at the end of our Sunday morning service, before we headed back out the church doors for the day. The lyrics spoke so well to the fellowship that I felt within that little church.
“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”
It was a very sweet way to end our Sunday service. It reminded us that, as we went back out into the real world, there was a group of people who met within the walls of that sanctuary who looked out for each other. None were perfect; we were regular people in need of forgiveness, but at least we knew we had each other. I sat through many a Wednesday night prayer meeting listening as people shared their heartaches and fears with each other and then prayed for each other. We prayed each other through cancer diagnoses, financial distresses, lost jobs, big decisions, wayward children, and even deaths.
Another verse of the song illustrates that part of a strong church family so well:
“We share our mutual woes,
our mutual burdens bear,
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.”
The beauty of that is that when you share your burdens with others, those burdens are halved, and relationships are strengthened. I saw that in action as folks pitched in to sit with people in the hospital, mow yards for the injured or disabled, take care of children when parents went job hunting, and donate food and clothing to the church for whoever might need it. What beautiful, practical ways to express that we really are all part of a family.
Now, on Sundays after we sang Blest be the Tie and we headed back home, mama would start making our Sunday dinner, which is what we called our big meal just after church. (I know most of y’all know that, but it bears repeating for the younger folks or any non-Southerners who may not know.) She’d make things like chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, or steak and gravy. There would be mashed potatoes, or a pot of fluffy white rice for my South Carolina-born daddy to enjoy. Sometimes in cooler months she would make a big pot roast with vegetables, or a big chicken pot pie. Those were good days, with good eating around the dinner table, usually followed by a nap, or, when we were teenagers, an afternoon on the beach.
I made a simple stovetop chicken stew last week that reminded me of mama’s Sunday afternoon chicken pot pie, so I thought that it’d be a good way to wrap up this reminiscence about the blessedness of meeting together with our church family and of breaking bread at home with our family there. It’s a favorite meal because it’s quick to make, so when everyone’s hungry it doesn’t take long to get on the table. I hope you like it, too.
One-pot chicken stew
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 cloves minced garlic (or equivalent from a jar)
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
12 ounce bag frozen mixed vegetables
6 ounces of frozen sliced carrots (You can do more or less than this, depending upon how you feel about carrots; we like a lot.)
1/2 onion, chopped
3 sprigs fresh thyme (or about 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
2 14-ounce cans sliced new potatoes, drained
1 heaping tablespoon plain flour
3 cups chicken broth or stock
Salt and pepper
In a Dutch oven or soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add to it the onion and frozen vegetables, and cook for five minutes to allow vegetables to soften and begin cooking.
Add the garlic and stir in.
Add the flour, sprinkling it over the vegetables, and then stir to coat them with it.
Next, chop the chicken thighs into two or three pieces each, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add to the pot.
Add the potatoes and celery seed to the pot, and then pour the broth over it all, and stir. Drop in the thyme.
Bring to a simmer, and then allow to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Stir occasionally so that the stew doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
If you used fresh thyme sprigs, remove the sprigs before serving. Taste the gravy for seasoning, and add a bit more salt if needed.
This meal would be just about perfect if served with a big, fluffy buttermilk biscuit to dunk into the broth of the stew, but if you don’t have those, garlic bread is a tasty option.
Maybe you could even share some with one of your neighbors or fellow church members who may need a little warmth and encouragement this week, because we all need a little more family in our lives, and a simple bowl of delicious stew is a good place to start.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph". She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are substantially taller than she is. You can email her at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com