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Huntsville church adds Moravian touch to Christmascomment (0)

December 14, 2006

By Jeremy Dale Henderson


"Our pastor at the time, Harold Shirley, decided to have some evening classes on different denominations, and since he knew I grew up in the Moravian church, he thought it’d be interesting to do a little session on the Moravians," Sapp said.

That class eventually led to a Christmas service structured after the lovefeast, which typically involves the consumption of sweet buns and sweetened coffee. As people come into the church for the service, they’re given a candle and they listen to the choir sing Christmas hymns while ushers quietly pass around trays of food and drink. The service ends with a standard candlelight presentation. This year, the candles will be beeswax, a Moravian symbol of purity.

While uncommon in Alabama, the lovefeast is celebrated by a significant number of North Carolina Baptists. On Dec. 3, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., a school with strong Baptist ties, hosted the largest lovefeast in North America.

"It’s the sharing of what we would call a simple meal of love and fellowship," said Sapp, who often takes his wife, Pat, on "bun runs" to Winston-Salem to secure authentic Moravian sweet buns. "What makes the service special is that it doesn’t emphasize the spoken word much at all. We usually read the Christmas story from the Bible, but for the most part, it’s a service of music and it’s a spiritual experience."

Church member Mary Jane Abernathy fully subscribes to the Moravian’s Christmas sensibilities. Despite its exotic name, "it’s really caught on as a community event, and people in our church really look forward to it."

Just before 7 p.m. Dec. 17, the sanctuary of Weatherly Heights Baptist Church, Huntsville, will be sweetened by the scent of grated orange rind and mace spice as it plays host to the traditions of a denomination unfamiliar to many in Alabama.

Thus begins Weatherly Heights Baptist’s Moravian Christmas Lovefeast, a custom originating in the 18th-century Moravian church. The Moravians make up a mainline Protestant denomination that had its beginnings more than five centuries ago in what is now the Czech Republic. While there are no Moravian churches in Alabama, the church maintains a strong American presence in the land where many of its progenitors first settled — North Carolina.

For 40 years, the lovefeast has been enjoyed at the Madison Baptist Association church — led by Pastor David B. Freeman.

Gene Sapp is the reason why.

Sapp, a native North Carolinian raised in a predominantly Moravian environment, first introduced the lovefeast to Weatherly Heights in 1966.

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