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  • by Carolyn Lackey

Sweet, Sweet Union


On the way to KFC after church yesterday, Alan and I had an interesting discussion with Meems' best friend, Leonard. He has given me permission to write his story using only his first name.

Before I get to the after-church conversation, I need to tell you about Leonard and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Going to KFC has become a Sunday tradition. More specifically, it's the KFC $5.00 Fill Up Sunday tradition. Every week as we're leaving church, Alan turns to Leonard and asks, "Leonard, do you want a $5.00 Fill Up?" The answer is always, "That would be nice." Then, the car itself knows to head towards the KFC on Slide Road.

The drive-through order sounds something like this:

"Welcome to KFC! I'll take your order when you're ready!"

"I'll have a $5.00 Fill Up with with a drumstick and thigh, original recipe and coleslaw with a Sierra Mist."

[A "free" chocolate chip cookie comes with every fill up. "You get chicken, coleslaw, a drink AND dessert for five dollars and forty-one cents!" Leonard raves.]


"Yes, sir! That will be a $5.00 Fill Up with with a drumstick and thigh and coleslaw, original recipe with a Sierra Mist. Is that correct?"

"Yes, it is!"

"That will be five dollars and forty one cents at the window. Please pull around."

While the order is being placed, Leonard passes $5.41 in exact change to the driver du jour.

This happens every single, solitary Sunday after church. I. LOVE. IT.

Now, back to my story.

During the drive to KFC, Leonard began talking about the church he attended from birth to young adulthood.

"I was christened there, and I was baptized there."

"What was the church called, Leonard?"

"It was called Sweet Union Baptist Church of Roanoke, Virginia. The church was established in 1910 and is 107 years old, and, in all that time, they have only had three pastors."

THREE PASTORS. 107 YEARS.

"The pastor that was there before the one they have now was there for fifty years. He's 90 years old and still preaches on special occasions."

Leonard often asks what we have planned for Sunday afternoon. Alan runs down his list: workout, maybe go to the office for a while, mow the yard... I usually say, "Maybe I'll take a nap." Then, Leonard tells us the Sunday schedule he experienced growing up.

"We went to the 11:00 service, then we went home for lunch [The Original $5.00 Fill Up - his mom's homemade fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, hot rolls, some sort of pie or cake and, sometimes, homemade ice cream.] After lunch, we went back to church at 3:00 in the afternoon for a 'concert.' After the concert, we went home for dinner. Then, the young folk went back up to church at 6:00 for Youth Bible Fellowship. And, we all went to the 7:00 evening service."

Leonard told me today that one time Mahalia Jackson sang for them at the 3:00 Sweet Union concert. Years later, on August 28, 1963, she lifted up her rich, deep voice at the Lincoln Memorial just before Martin Luther King gave life to his "I Have A Dream" Speech.

Among the 250,000 in attendance on the Washington mall that day stood Leonard.

Again on April 9, 1968, Mahalia sang for Dr. King. At his funeral. Aretha Franklin also honored Dr. King with her voice that day. What a day. What a day. What a day.

Curious about this amazing church, I googled SUBC Roanoke. I found an 2011 article from the Roanoke Times. The second of the three pastors pastors of the church, Reverend Burton, indeed, retired from the pulpit in 2009 after 50 years as the head pastor of the church.

"A 12-person search committee vetted more than 100 candidates over almost two years, and only a few were called to give a visiting sermon at the 400-member church, said Linda Kyle, a member of the committee."

-Jorge Valencia. "At Sweet Union, A rare match...", The Roanoke Times May 11, 2011

After the exhaustive search, the congregation chose (140 for - 30 against)...are you ready?!

Fifty-six year old Sylvia Ball. A WOMAN.

Leonard laughed out loud when we talked about Sweet Union choosing a WOMAN for their head pastor. "Before she came there, she wouldn't have even been allowed to sit up at the front of the church next to the pastor because she was a woman!" he said releasing another boisterous laugh. As for Sylvia Ball's first Sunday in that patriarchal pulpit, Adrian Lewis' spoke to the Roanoke Times about the crowded sanctuary.

"Maybe it was because it was Mother's Day, or maybe there was curiosity, but we had to add additional chairs for overflow crowd," said Adrian Lewis, a longtime church member."

-Jorge Valencia. "At Sweet Union, A rare match of Baptist church and female pastor",

The Roanoke Times May 11, 2011

Ahhh, Sweet Union.

Photo from SUBC's Facebook page

As we drove away from KFC yesterday, Leonard wistfully said, "I loved that church. Sometime while I'm still in the land of the living, I'd like to be able to go there one more time to enjoy the fellowship. Also, I'd like to see the graves of my mother, my daddy and my brothers."

By golly, if I have to buy 50 lottery tickets or hold 22 bake sales, that man is going to sit in the front pew of Sweet Union Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia, one more Sunday while he is still in the land of the living. Alan and I hope to be sitting next to him.

Sylvia Ball, Leonard's a-comin! Glory Hallelujah and Amen.

#KentuckyFriedChicken #KFC #MartinLutherKing #MahaliaJackson #ArethaFrankline #500FillUp #SweetUnionBaptistChurch #RoanokeVA

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