Lifestyles - 07-16-2008

Oldest active member of Denmark's Bethel Park UMC

Nina Neeley Martin

Special to Advertizer-Herald from Bethel Park United Methodist Church

"My family and I always sat on the right side of the church where I sit now, except of course when I was in the choir. The stained glass windows that were taken out to enlarge the church to make Sunday School rooms are my first memory of our church. I don't remember the windows being taken out, but I remember the colors when the windows were there. I just thought it was the prettiest thing with all those colors of light coming in. I must have been an infant because I think the windows were taken out in the early 1920s. I've been told they gave those windows to the Denmark Presbyterian Church when it was being built." 90 year old Nina Neeley Martin, oldest active member of Denmark's Bethel Park United Methodist Church, recalled when asked her first memory of her church. Bethel Park is truly Martin's home church because her grandparents, Elisabeth and Edward Sojourner, were among the church founders in 1908. Her parents, aunts and uncles were active members those still living are still part of the Bethel Park family. Her church membership has been at Bethel Park her entire life.

Epworth League was the Methodist youth group during Martin's teenage years. Epworth League met on Sunday night before preaching every week. Martin explained "I remember one preacher we had when I was in high school but I can't think of his name right now. He really appealed to young people. He taught his daughter to dance and that was unusual for a preacher to have anything to do with dancing. We youth really liked him because of his modern ideas."

Martin's church membership has never moved away from Bethel Park even though she did live away at different times over the years. March 14, 2008, Martin celebrated her 90th birthday, then on Sunday, March 16, she was in her regular pew to hear her Methodist Bishop, Mary Virginia Taylor, deliver the morning message. While there are other older people on the church rolls, she is the oldest currently active member. Sunday mornings Martin drives herself to church if her son is unable to take her. She still sits in the pew her family has always occupied. As a devoted choir member for most of her adult life, Martin sat in the choir for much longer than she has sat in the congregation. Though she has seen many changes in the world around her, Martin says the biggest change she's noticed at church, is the number of people coming to church. "Seems to me that, at one time, we had at least 300 people coming to church. Now a lot there are a lot fewer names on the church role. The people who are in our church do come to church regularly. Over the years sitting in the choir, I've observed that most of our members come most Sundays. We've always had men for preachers in the past, but now we have a woman. This is a change for Bethel Park too." She reflected.

"I was baptized on the front porch of my Grandma's house where I lived with my family. Our minister was Mr. Wiggins. He was visiting the family on a Sunday afternoon. Mama was pregnant and so she couldn't go to church during that time. I guess that's why I was baptized at home so Mama could be there.

Martin officially joined the choir when she was about 15 years old. Before that, Martin explained, "Julia Margaret McCain taught us voice and had us children do special programs sometimes so we had a chance to sing and to do things. Being part of the choir over all these years is the best thing about being part of Bethel Park United Methodist Church." Boo Poole, Bethel Park Choir Director, spoke lovingly of Martin and the Neeley family as she said, "When I became choir director at Bethel Park, Nina was the mainstay of the choir and the person I most respected as the "last word" and "the last note." She had been singing in the choir since she was 15 years old. She had the seniority and experience. Adding to that, not only was she the senior of the choir, but she was also the senior of her very musical Neeley family who made up most of the choir."

"It is interesting to note that for many years, the Neeley family was the main body of the choir." Poole explained. "They had been singing in the choir long before I came to Bethel Park and they continued to be the bulk of the choir during my first fifteen or so years. There was Tedi Butler singing soprano, Polly Eubanks, singing Alto, Nina Martin, Ted Neeley, Gus Eubanks, Donald Eubanks, Paul Eubanks, and Chris Eubanks singing tenor. Sam Neeley, Roy Hart, and Walter Martin were singing bass. It goes without saying that choir practice was a true family event for the Neeleys." She recounted.

Choir member Mimbee Baker said, "When we moved to Denmark and I joined the choir I thought it a little funny that Ms. Nina was sitting with the tenors. I now understand that your voice gets lower over time. Women can sing tenor very well and sometimes even bass!!! Ms Nina had a good voice, a wonderful spirit, and a smile that was a bright spot on the back row."

"My choir experiences have been so wonderful. My choir friends are all really special people. I love every one of them. They are my church family in every way." Martin said with a smile.

Still doing her part whenever she's asked, at 90 Nina Martin is a cherished member of Bethel Park United Methodist Church, faithful in her attendance and her support of it's ministry in the Denmark community.