OKOLONA • The quaint little concrete building with a graveyard behind it would be easy to miss were it not for the sign indicating that the spirit of the Lord dwells there, but for those who attend, there is no doubt of the sanctity of this little country church.
Walking inside New Hope Church is like stepping into a modern interpretation of the past. The pews line each side of the aisle, which leads to the classic pulpit backed by the Baptismal Pool and flanked by the Pastor's office and music room.
This old building, is home to a warmth that is only found in places where the Lord dwells within the congregation and, through them, spreads his word.
As the 155th anniversary approaches, however, what better time to take a look back at the history of the church and how it came to be such a welcoming arena?
New Hope Church was founded on Oct. 6, 1866 when Isaac Mullins deeded two acres of land to Thomas B. Shearer and others, earmarking the land, “for the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.”
William C. Gaskin also deeded an additional half an acre of land on the very same day.
According to the church historians, this is the earliest know record of what would go on to become New Hope Church.
Gaskin also, gave the church an additional acre and a half in Dec. 1880.
According to the church's historical writeup, the original building burned prior to World War II, leaving the parishioners without a house of worship for a number of years, however, soon after the close of the war, three men, H. H. Corley, Theron Hill and R. A. Stephens led a movement to rebuild the church on the grounds where it stood, and in 1955, the building, which is still used today, was erected.
While New Hope sits stationed between Houston Houlka and Okolona, it has bounced around as far as charges.
“In 1948, New Hope, which had been on the Houlka Charge earlier, was placed with Okolona,” said the church's historical writeup. “In 1950, it was again placed with Houlka, on which charge it remained until the Van Vleet Charge was formed in 1959.”
According to the documents, the membership began to grow in the 1960's.
“By 1961, the church was beginning to grow in membership, with 29 on the roll at the beginning of the year and six members added to make a total of 35 at the end of the year. There were 40 on roll in Sunday School.”
The church began construction on the adjoining annex in 1975, and much of the work was completed by members of the church. The 1,500 square foot addition was home to a nursery, two rest rooms, kitchen facilities and a large dining area.
The church has also withdrew from the Methodist Association, and now call themselves a Non-Denominational Church.
While the history is interesting, it is equally important to take a look at where the church stands now and where they plan to go.
The current pastor, Steve Driskell, has been with the church for 18 months, and he has not looked back.
Utilizing the tools at his disposal, and his passion for the Word of God, he has worked to grow the membership in the church, and so far, it has been a success.
“Through what the congregation has told me, the Sunday before I preached my first sermon, there was only two people in the congregation,” he said. “The first Sunday that I actually preached at New Hope, they were having a family gathering, this is an old family church, and so I got to preach to about 46-47 people that day. They were excited to see a preacher coming in, even with all this going on, and we've grown since. We, on average, in the first three or four months, were averaging about 18-20 people, right now, we're averaging about 36-38 people on a Sunday morning.”
While coming to such a historic church might have scared some away, Driskell has reveled in the experience, and even learned from it.
“It has been humbling, that is the best was I can put it.”
His journey to being the pastor was almost as storied as the church itself, he joked.
“I had some dealings with the church through my home church. They were a Methodist Church at the time, and my wife and I were attending Brewer Baptist Church, and we were doing a ministry for Broken Lives Matter in Nettleton, and it was the Christmas Season, and my wife and I were over a children's program on Wednesday nights at Brewer, so we got the kids together and we made gift bags. We made two sets, one for the people at Broken Lives and then we made others for their children who would be coming during Christmas, so they would actually have something to give their kids. So, when my mother-in-law and father-in-law, who are local here, found out, there church got involved and this church got involved to make it a better Christmas for them. So, that was my first dealings with the church here.”
While he first encountered New Hope here, he could not have imagined that he would go on to preach here...or anywhere for that matter, as it was only after this that he decided to surrender to the ministry. “It was not long after that that I actually surrendered to preach, that was about three years ago, and my first time I preached was at Broken Lives Matter in Nettleton, and the way that it happened was, my mother-in-law's church, which is Boone's Chapel, and this church, which was their sister church at the time, both were Methodist churches, they were feeding and serving at Broken Lives Matter, and they were supposed to bring a message, but the preacher at the time, who had three churches, which was Boone's Chapel, New Hope and First Methodist in Okolona, was unavailable that night, so my mother-in-law calls and she says ' I'm not asking you, I've already turned you in,' she said. ' We need a preacher this night, you're a preacher now, so you're preaching,” he said with a laugh. “There were members here in the congregation that heard me preach, and that's how they knew about me, and I spent the first two years after that filling in through Lee County and Itawamba and I thought, with COVID and all the churches that shut down at that point, that it was the end of my ministry, and my prayer was just 'Lord, if it be your will, I want to get back into the Pulpit if that be your will, just let me know.”
Well, he certainly had his prayer answered.
He eventually received the call to come to New Hope, and he spent the first few months split between this church and his home church, where he was a deacon. He would spend two Sundays at New Hope and two at Brewer.
“I was trying to make it where I could still do what I was called to do, but also fulfill my obligation at Brewer, so for the first three months I was here, it was doing that. I still had my obligations that I had to fulfill, and then after that it was a full time and then about a month of doing it full time, they asked me to be their pastor.”
While 155 years is quite a long time, Driskell views it as infancy for New Hope.
“The best way I can describe New Hope is that we are a 154-year-old brand new church.”
The 155th Anniversary and Homecoming will be celebrated on Sunday, Oct. 17.
There will be the usual Brotherhood Breakfast that morning at 7:30, which is open to all men, regardless of what religion they are, and it will be breakfast and a message. Following that, 10 a.m. will see Sunday School as usual, followed by worship service at 11 a.m. Then there will be a meal provided by the church and a singing as well as a speaker about the church and how it affected the area.
“It's going to be a day of reflection I guess would be the best way to put it.”