MILLINGTON — For the people who gather at Graves Chapel Union American Methodist Episcopal Church every Sunday, the building serves as not only a place of worship but as a home friends and family always know they can come back to.

Graves Chapel has been through its share of trials, including being re-built three times. The first iteration of Graves Chapel was founded in 1899 by Henry Graves, however it was lost to natural disaster. Later, in 1967, a second church was built on the existing Graves’ location under the leadership of the Rev. Paul Ruffin. After a tornado struck in November 1989, a third church was built in 1992 under the leadership of the Rev. Milton Young.

Now that building is aging, the congregation is asking for help from the community to get the last $12,000 of the $240,000 mortgage paid off. With that payment taken care of, the congregation hopes to begin working on much needed maintenance of the building like roof repairs, replacing the heater, new carpet and paint.

Donations may be made payable to Graves Chapel UAME Church, P.O. Box 415, Millington, MD 21651. Graves is a nonprofit so donations are tax deductible.

For the Rev. Shelia Lomax, who has lived at Graves Chapel for two years, having the mortgage paid also means keeping her promise to her parents and grandparents.

She said she remembers sitting in the first pews of the church rebuilt after the tornado when the older members of the congregation asked the younger members to ensure the church is paid off for future generations.

“And for me, my word is my bond and I feel obligated to carry on. To see that it gets paid off and that we can pass the baton to the younger groups without a bill over their heads,” Lomax said. “It means a lot to me. It means a lot to each and everyone else that we do what we promised our elder ones that we would do.”

Lomax said the church has seen declining membership. She said most of the church’s members have been lost to old age with few of the younger generation attending church services.

“It’s been a struggle. We had some ups and downs,” Lomax said. “You wouldn’t think people would misuse the church and not do what they were paid to do. We have a lot of things that we have to re-correct.”

Nelson Demby said he remembers helping to rebuild the church after the tornado.

“It’s home. I went away for quite some time. I didn’t come back until 2014 and it’s still home. No matter what church I go to, this is my home,” Demby said. “When I walk in the door here, I am home.”

Demby said though he lives in Centreville now, he comes to Graves Chapel every Sunday because it’s the church where he feels the most welcome.

Demby said at Graves Chapel “we have an open-door policy, therefore, all are welcome.”

The church’s mission statement reads “It is by Faith we will stand on the Word of God, moving the Church forward into a multi-cultural, multi-racial congregation, striving to serve all people. To follow in the footsteps of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Believing, yes, we can do all things through Jesus Christ which strengthen us, empathizing love, faith and given hope to all mankind.”

The Rev. Joyce A. Phillips said maintaining Graves Chapel in Millington is important because the church also is like a home to her.

“I was born and raised in Millington — lived in Millington all my life. And this is the church that my mother brought us to,” Phillips said.

She said she remembers when the tornado struck Graves, she left immediately to see the damage and how she could help.

“I left my job. I didn’t ask my supervisor if I could be excused or if I could leave. I left when I heard about the tornado,” Phillips said. “It was devastating.”

Phillips said she was amazed by the damage done to the church by the tornado. The church was essentially flattened leaving behind a cross, which was built into the new church. The first church’s original bell was preserved despite the storm and an altar chair was able to be salvaged from the debris.

“It was just heartbreaking and devastating. All the work that went into that church. You thought about everything our forefathers and mothers had left to carry on and do,” Phillips said. “It was just heartbreaking, it was. It really was for me.”

She said losing the place that held many memories — like her mother not being satisfied until the annual Women’s Day dinner had fresh chicken — was heartbreaking for her.

“Just the pride that (our parents) carry and it was handed down to some of us that we have that grand place of worship. As we saw ourselves grow, that we saw our children and it seem liked time was moving so swiftly,” Phillips said.

Despite the damage, Phillips said she is proud that the community of Graves was able to rebuild its church despite such a damaging storm. Phillips said she preached her first sermon in the church that was destroyed by the tornado. Despite being called to preach at other churches, Phillips said she still considers Graves Chapel her home.

“I always considered this home. It’s always a place that you can come back to, to know where your roots and your history are. That’s why I’m so appreciative to know that Graves Chapel is still standing even though I know it’s been through a lot of trials and tribulations and ups and downs, but it still is available if you want to come,” Phillips said. “I just thank the Lord for the memory and history.”

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