Mennonite Music in Happy Valley
An annual singing convention in Darby brought together Mennonite Brethren church choirs from Lenoir, Ferguson, Boone, Bushtown and Newland for an afternoon of singing, food and fellowship. The churches are part of the Mennonite Brethren North Carolina District, the only district in the United States with a majority of African-American members.
Religious music traditions remain strong among African Americans in the Valley. Many communities are oriented around churches, which provide the main social meeting place outside of people's homes. The singing convention in Darby featured performances by each church choir and concluded with a festive pot luck dinner and fellowship shared by all of the participants.
"Historically, Mennonites developed certain festivals or festive occasions in order for families to get together, exchange information and enjoy God's word," says Virgil Greer, a member of the Boone Mennonite Brethren Church. "These included a harvest festival, a singing convention and other gatherings throughout the year. The singing convention was one of the most highly-rated events. It wasn't a revival but was rather a celebration in song of the churches' accomplishments and singing in praise of God. They drew large crowds—we have old pictures of people coming on horseback, wagons, and trucks through some very adverse conditions. Some of these roads were just trails through the mountains when they were first developed."
During the late 19th century, when many churches were sending missionaries to the mountains, it was a teacher named Emily Pruden who noticed that African American communities in the region were being overlooked. As a result of her efforts, missionaries from the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church in Kansas opened a school and orphanage in Elk Park in Avery County in 1900.
Surviving death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and other difficulties, the church expanded into the surrounding region, and in the 1930s and 40s, came to Happy Valley in Caldwell County under the leadership of missionary Peter Siemens. Today there are two Mennonite Brethren churches in Happy Valley (Darby and Laytown), two in the Lenoir area, one in Boone and one near Newland in Avery County. There is substantial interaction between the churches and their communities. Many parishioners travel back and forth to attend revivals and to visit friends and family.
In addition to the annual singing convention, the Conference holds a "Love Feast," a tradition associated with the Moravian church which is similar to a homecoming.
For more information about the Mennonites in Happy Valley, contact Terry Hunt, District Minister, Bushtown Mennonite Brethren Church, Lenoir, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (828) 758-0540.
Watch the Videos and Hear the Music
You can see popular songs performed or download mp3s of the music at the links below:
"As Long As I Got Jesus"
"I Will Bless the Lord at All Times"
"Sky Full of Angels"
"There is Power in the Blood"