Betty Jo Buckingham wasn’t even born when her grandfather William Buckingham was elected as a presiding elder at the Prairie City Church of the Brethren. He came to Prairie City a licensed minister, ordained in Illinois.
It was 1910. The church organization was still young, and the church building which stands today wouldn’t break ground for another seven years. That same year, Betty Jo’s uncle, Benjamin Buckingham, was elected a church deacon alongside fellow Brethren John McCuen and Lawrence Colyn. The Buckingham’s and Brubaker’s were some of the first Brethren leaders in Prairie City.
It’s safe to say, the Prairie City Church of the Brethren and its emphasis on peace and service were part of the 90-year-old’s DNA from an early age.
“The church means family,” Betty Jo said. “I consider myself a pacifist, and that’s one of the teachings of the (Brethren) church. There is no force in religion in this church. If you choose not to be a pacifist that’s fine. ... Pacifism is important to me. It’s an important tenant.”
The Brethren Church congregation will be celebrating their building’s 100th birthday in a two-day event Oct. 14 and 15. The birthday party begins with a 4:30 p.m. open house Saturday, Oct. 14 in the sanctuary, featuring church artifacts and memorabilia both historic and new. From 5:15 to 5:45 p.m. attendees will be treated to a Hymn Sing, before moving into Love Feast Service — a traditional Brethren service with a reenactment of the Last Supper feet-washing service.
Phyllis Peter is the wife of pastor Tim Peter who has served the Prairie City Brethren church for 26 years. She explained feet-washing is taken straight from the New Testament when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to teach humility.
“It’s to symbolize being Christ’s hands here on Earth. We are all servants like Christ. He wasn’t afraid to get down and wash other’s feet,” Peter said. “Brethren have a real emphasis on service, so we do that twice a year to remind us of that.”
Sunday’s worship service will continue the 100th birthday weekend, with a potluck and informal music jam to follow in the outdoor pavilion, the newest addition to the church grounds. The Prairie City Brethren will also welcome special guest and former church pastor Jeff Bach. Now the Director of Young Center Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Bach will lead the Love Feast and share the Sunday morning pulpit with Tim Peter.
Holding a library science degree from the University of Illinois, Betty Jo has been dubbed the unofficial church historian. Over the years, she’s kept the record with notes like her 1994 book “100 Years and Growing” chronically the church’s history. The 90-year-old even traded a piece of her farm with a neighboring landowner to ensure the church owned its property outright.
With the help of members like Bob Elrod, she has been able to put together a display for the open house evoking the sense of community that moved through each Brethren congregation over the decades.
The exhibit includes an original Brethren Hymnal printed in 1877. The book uses rhythmic markings instead of a time signature. In place of a melodic line of notes, a single tone is written to be played on a pitch pipe. According to Betty Jo, the lyrics were sung by the leader followed by the congregation in a call and response style.
There is also a 1957 schematic drawing of the church addition/renovation featured, a reproduction of a traditional white apron bearing a logo designed by Jane Charls, photo boards of members past and present, and a hand-sewn formal black dress and bonnet made for Betty Jo’s mother-in-law by her mother. The clothing was worn by the church women, and the historian joked her converted Methodist mother was not too keen on wearing the attire.
“One of the things she said was the fancy bonnets they wore they cost more than her hats did. So she wasn’t wearing a bonnet,” Betty Jo said.
As a member since the age of 9, Betty Jo will say she’s seen “quite a little bit” of change. She’s seen the physical additions of a nursery and kitchen, and Sunday school rooms converted into storage. Some things, such as the wooden pews and pastors pulpit, remain nearly the same as they were in 1917.
Betty Jo’s newest collection is a church memoir commissioned for the 100th anniversary celebration — “In the Church Kitchen: And Other Memories of the Prairie City Church of the Brethren and its building Built in 1917.”
To honor the Brethren focus on service, Phyllis Peter said the congregation has taken on a challenge to each do 100 acts of service, whether the deed is 100 random acts of kindness or 100 items for the food pantry. Members can write their act on a leaf and place it on a special tree in the sanctuary.
“People are doing very different things,” Peter said. “We don’t want it to just be about the history. We want it to also be about being the church today and being of service to others.”
Contact Mike Mendenhall at firstname.lastname@example.org.