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At 80, local pastor answering the call

It’s not often that a person is called out of retirement at the age of 80, but when the call comes, those who can, do.

Rev. Dr. Charles Michael Smith, a Washington native and retired Methodist pastor, answered that call in April, when the church’s district superintendent rang to ask whether he’d be willing to return to the pulpit at Warren Chapel in Blounts Creek.

“It’s exciting. As you age, and you’re grateful for still being healthy and reasonably lucid, it’s kind of fun to do this thing you’ve always loved doing,” Smith laughed. “It’s a coming together of their need and my happiness in doing it.”

Though the request came in the spring and Smith was set to give his first sermon in June, concerns about COVID-19, social distancing and the congregation gathering in the small church postponed that service.

While some churches have opted for continuing online or drive-in services, others have returned to meeting in person.

“That’s the really strange component for everybody — we’re all playing Follow the Leader, Blind Man’s Bluff. You’re trying to do this thing and do it a helpful way, but you really don’t want to endanger anybody,” Smith said. “When I agreed to do this back in April, who could have foreseen what it would have been like?”

This Sunday, Smith and Warren Chapel’s congregation will meet outdoors on the church lawn at 10 a.m., an hour earlier than usual to beat the summer heat. The century-old church is located midway between Chocowinity and Aurora in its second home — in the 1940s, it was lifted onto rollers and moved to its current location.

“It’s just a beautiful setting. The church is almost a prototypical white clapboard church near the highway,” Smith said. “It’s just a pretty little slice of eastern North Carolina there.”

Negotiating a church gathering in the midst of a global pandemic has had its challenges, and those attending Warren Chapel’s outdoor services are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs and facemasks, and sit at a social distance. Instead of singing as a group, soloists — including Smith, who is a lifelong singer — will provide music.

“We’re trying this hybrid thing of meeting, but social distancing, masking outdoors. That’s really where we are. Everybody has an openness about ‘Will this work? Do we want to do it this way?’ We haven’t committed to doing this forever but we’re going to give it shot,” Smith said. “It’s going to be interesting to look at a masked congregation.”

Filling in as pastor at Warren Chapel completes another circle of life for Smith: his mother grew up in Blounts Creek and, as a child, attended the church on the south side of the river.

“That’s another attachment for me, is I heard her mention it years ago,” Smith said.

The attachment is shared by the congregation that is welcoming Smith as pastor.

“I’m impressed with how much these people love their church and how loyal they have been to it for over a hundred years now. It’s never been a big congregation. It’s largely people who come down of the weekend and stay on the water, as well people who live in the area. There are more people who live elsewhere but attend somewhat regularly than I would have guessed,” he said.

For Smith, pastoring at the Blounts Creek church is a welcome challenge, one he was glad to accept, many years after being called to serve in churches as close as Greenville and as far away as Aberdeen, Scotland.

“I just think that one of the delights of our particular time in history to move to the positives, and how much longer we get to live in good health, to live a long and happy live and still have good health and energy,” Smith said. “I would never guess that I would be 80 and considering going back to work, but older people are doing things and doing them for longer than they used to. That’s a neat part in living in this time.”

Warren Chapel United Methodist Church is located at 13259 N.C. Highway 33 East, Blounts Creek.