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One slow Saturday morning in the Greensboro newsroom where I worked decades ago, an editor handed me a scribbled note. “There’s not much going on,” he said, “why don’t you see if you can make this into a story.”

Deciphering the scribble I saw that the note proclaimed the approaching 75th anniversary of a small black Pentecostal church in a hardscrabble rural area outside the city limits.

Religion was one of my beats, and it felt like a mellow autumn morning for a drive.

I called the phone number on the note. A gravelly voice said they’d be expecting me.

Following the directions I found myself traveling serpentine country roads in an area peppered with weathered houses and tumbledown shacks. And in one three-room dwelling, next to a humble white clapboard church, I located the church’s pastor and his wife.

I can no longer recall their names, or the name of the church. But the wonderment they both expressed for “how much the Lord has blessed us” is etched deeply in my memory. Here was a couple in their 80s who had given their lives to ministering to mostly poor folk out in the country.

Their house was modest beyond description, their furniture threadbare, but their joy in their marriage and in their ministry together was palpable. The interview bubbled over with the couple’s enthusiasm for what God had been doing in their midst, so much so that all three of us were in tears when the interview finished.

They invited me back for the actual anniversary celebration several days hence, and though I’d already turned in my story, I went on my own time. Just to see.

What I saw was cars of every description, from junkers to shiny new Cadillacs and Lincolns, and license plates from Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and even farther afield. Their drivers and passengers, decked out in their finest attire, were piling into the church. They were radiant with that same joy I’d seen on the pastor and his wife’s faces. Of course the service, and the food that followed, were wonderful.

I thought of this couple and their church a few days ago while tuning in on Tom Brokaw’s report to the National Press Club in Washington on his latest book, “The Time of Our Lives.”

The question came up from the floor as to whether “the American dream” was still alive, that is, the questioner said, “Would the current generation have it better than their parents?” “Better” clearly meant “materially better,” and Brokaw demurred.

“Obviously there are limits,” he said, He went on to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we could measure “having it better” by indices other than material acquisition, other than bigger houses, faster, sleeker cars, more disposable income. He spoke of getting back to values such as community, integrity, loyalty to family and friends, accountability..

So much, it seems to me, has gone by the wayside in our mad-dash pursuit of the material.

Brokaw would have enjoyed interviewing the pastor and his wife in the back country outside Greensboro. And he would have turned the anniversary gathering in the church, with its black gospel chords ringing from the rafters, into a piece of prose much finer than what you are reading just now.

This Thanksgiving, despite our struggling economy, I hope we all will count our many blessings — and not put the house, the car, and the racks of clothes in our closets at the top of the list.

John Patrick Grace formerly covered religion and healthcare for The Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. He is now a book editor based in Huntington and teaches the Life Writing Class.

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