CARROLLTON, Ala. (BP)–Pickens County, Ala., comes up on you like a clump of goldenrod on the roadside, so quickly you almost miss it. The neon lights and barbecue joints lie miles behind. Just up ahead, past small towns like Gordo and Elwood, past lanky loblolly pines and sloughs populated by turtles and cypress knees, is the sign for Carrollton, population 1,151, the Pickens County seat.
Stop folks on the street, and there’s a good chance you’ll meet someone who went to church with an International Mission Board missionary.
Pickens County has had someone serving overseas in missions consistently since 1851. And 149 years and 16 IMB missionaries later, the missions call is still heard — and heeded — by churchgoers who call Pickens County home.
Pickens County has a heritage of faith as thick as the morning mist over the nearby Tombigbee Waterway. All together, the association has 31 Southern Baptist churches, with membership totals ranging from 24 to 527.
But their faith doesn’t stop at home. Starting with Pickens (then called Grants Creek) Baptist Church member Martha Foster Crawford, and her husband, T.P., who were appointed as missionaries to China in 1851, church members all over the association have prayed, given and gone for the cause of global missions.
What is the secret that keeps missions alive in Pickens County?
In an age when the mega-church is king and missions budgets may be whittled down to make room for building funds, this quiet spot has an uncanny grasp on the missions message.
From feeding and clothing the county’s needy to jail ministries and short-term missions projects, churches across the county “gee and haw together” for the cause, says Gary Farley, associational missionary in Pickens County. “We just believe in coming together around missions.”
Farley points out another ingredient as ubiquitous as collard greens — a long-standing missions heritage.
One look around Carrollton will prove it’s not the bricks or offerings that build these churches; it’s the faithful prayers and preserved memories of missions heroes that bring life and breath to generations of Christians.
On occasions like Carrollton Baptist Church’s Missions Festival, friends and relatives of Addie Cox, a single missionary to China from 1918 to 1944 and a Pickens County native, gather to remember her life and legacy.
“Miss Addie lived a very simple sort of life,” says one church member. “I remember when she took the neighborhood boys to visit the jail for the first time, and there she was, a fearless, short, stocky woman dressed in black clothes. She was surrounded by black and white prisoners, and the guards weren’t even in the room. Those men listened as she told them that God loved them.”
“She always said the secret to life and living is not in keeping, but in giving,” another offers.
Born in Pickens County in 1885, Cox gave her life to Christ and joined Carrollton Baptist Church at age 9. Because of her passion for sharing her faith both at home and abroad, she made a profound impact on scores of people.
“There are probably hundreds of people who have developed a heart for missions because of Addie Cox,” Farley says. “When I was growing up, not only did we eat for China (‘Starving children in China would be glad to have those peas!’), but in our minds, China was the image we had when we thought of missions and missionaries.”
James Ulman Moss, who served as a missionary in Latin America from 1945 to 1982, spent his boyhood years in the pews of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
“We’re proud we had a missionary come from our church,” Herschel Owen, pastor at Mount Pleasant, says. “It just goes to show you don’t have to be from a big church or a rich family to be a missionary.”
Depending on who is asked, the reasons vary for Pickens County’s consistency in missions. But the goal remains the same.
Ask Farley, and he’ll suggest that a close-knit, small town environment helps keep people down to earth and missions stories fresh.
“Jesus spent most of his time in rural areas. He wanted to plant the gospel in a place where folks knew folks,” Farley says.
In a small town, there are generations of people who remember. They tell a story, and the next generation builds on that story. A heritage is born.
Addie Cox is a prime example of heritage building.
“Here was a lady who was consistent. She was a missionary in China, and she was a missionary in Carrollton. She didn’t pass people by,” Farley says.
Bonnie Windle of Carrollton Baptist Church says childhood memories of Cox planted missions in her mind, eventually culminating in more than 10 mission projects in Brazil.
“My children and grandchildren call me a missionary,” she says, smiling. “It means so much to hear them say that.
“Miss Addie made such an impression on all of us. We’ve just always been around such great examples of faith that we can’t help but want to be involved.”
Nell Jones, associational director for the Woman’s Missionary Union in Pickens County for 10 years, says missions is indelibly impressed on people’s hearts.
“I think it’s just part of our lives,” Jones says. “We’re missions-minded like that. We’ve always tried to live the Great Commission.”
Addie Cox would be proud.