Emma Lester Sunday School class marks centennial

  • Follow Your Faith

It was a little after 10 a.m., and the Emma Lester Sunday school class at St. James Methodist Church on Greene Street was warming up.

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Dave Barnette (second from right) says a prayer in the Emma Lester Sunday school class at St. James Methodist Church. The class, named after the Augusta native who became a missionary to China in the early 1900s, is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  MIKE ADAMS/SPECIAL
MIKE ADAMS/SPECIAL
Dave Barnette (second from right) says a prayer in the Emma Lester Sunday school class at St. James Methodist Church. The class, named after the Augusta native who became a missionary to China in the early 1900s, is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Prayer requests were detailed on a white board, including one for Chip and Karen Melton, whose son just got a motorcycle.

“Do we ever quit worrying about our children?” someone in the back asked.

“No,” said class member Dot Layman, mother of five and grandmother of many. “You never do.”

Another request on the board sought prayers for Lenora Bacon, the oldest member of the class. She had missed the past two Sundays.

Bacon has been an Emma Lester stalwart for decades, back when rollcall took a while and the class was so large it had to be divided into groups.

Not so these days.

After 100 years, the Emma Lester Class has dwindled to a handful that meets in a combined session with other St. James Sunday schools. That group now includes men, something probably not considered in 1914 when the Rev. Walter Dillard combined two female Sunday school groups into one and it took the name of the church’s missionary to China.

The morning’s lesson is from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The Bibles come out, the lesson books are open and Chip Melton leads the discussion about church troubles of the past compared to church troubles of today.

The Corinthians gave Paul problems, and the class talks about how the early Christian evangelist earned some of his sainthood with his responses.

“Are we ever like that?” Elsie Utley asks. “I just wonder.”

Melton, standing at a rostrum in the center of the room, said he doubted it. “I think we do a pretty good job.”

Milledge Murray, a retired banker, whose St. James lineage is one of the congregation’s oldest, admitted the years had seen their challenges, including now, as the historic old church – begun before the Civil War in one of Augusta’s best neighborhoods – now serves a poorer urban community.

“But that’s why we’re here,” says Andrea Spano, a former school teacher.

“That’s why God put us here,” agrees Murray.

That sense of mission is an Emma Lester Class tradition.

According to the 1914 minutes of its first year, the class decided to name itself after Emma, not only to support her work in China, but also to bolster its own missionary service around Augusta. The records detail financial contributions to the poor children of the King Mill Mission, a project sponsored by St. James member Martha Lester, who also happened to be the missionary’s mother.

That effort continued for the next quarter-century, and it wasn’t the only one undertaken. The Bethlehem Center in Augusta’s black community was a beneficiary, and so were poor students who needed help paying for college.

Those minutes, and a class history put together 40 years ago, show a sense of almost girlish joy, as the young Methodist women composed poems and songs and even a cheer to express their class enthusiasm.

For decades this spirit was encouraged by the original teacher, Donna Hendee, ultimately honored with a stained glass window in the St. James sanctuary.

Emma Lester never forgot her church on Greene Street (she was, after all, born 40 yards from its back door), or the class that bore her name. Sometimes she returned to Augusta to speak. In later years, retired from the mission field and living in Washington or New York, she would often send letters of encouragement.

Lester died in 1978, but the class lived on, honoring her memory with service projects, even as it began to shrink like the once large St. James congregation.

Sunday’s Emma Lester Class class ends as the members all stand for a closing prayer circle.

Heads bow and hands grip each other, grasping not only a 100-year past, but an unknown future with the faith, as they say, that God put them there for a reason.

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