Cedar and hardwoods hover over the two acre grounds of the historic meeting place of Graves Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church located at 1575 Alcovy Trestle Road in Social Circle, a half of a mile off U.S. Interstate 20.
Spanning over 119 years, the church exists in its third structure, a renovated brick building topped by a white steeple. The church bell from the original building that once beckoned the community to come worship, praise and pray, is preserved in front of the church.
In ministry since 1982, the Rev. Charlie Frank Stembridge and wife Sharon came to Graves Chapel in 2001 after serving in A.M.E. churches in Tallapoosa, Atlanta, Hogansville, and Dallas.
While in high school, Pastor Stembridge said he realized that a special calling was placed on his life. "I knew that the lord wanted me to serve by delivering the word to the saved and unsaved," said the Rev. Stembridge. "I accepted that calling by staying involved in the church, studying the word and accepting God's plan for my life."
Born in Hancock County, in Sparta, the pastor grew up in a home where Christ was always first. "We were taught at an early age that helping others is a true way of pleasing God," said Stembridge. The reverend is a graduate of Beulah Heights Bible College.
The couple met through Sharon's brother-in-law who introduced them after a service where Stembridge was preaching. "It seemed on that day that we had known each other for a long time," they both agreed. "After that initial introduction, we became friends and were married three years later."
In addition to working with the Department of Human Resources where she has trained adoptive and foster parents for the past 26 years, Sharon serves in many capacities in the church. "The Children's Ministry is where I am most involved," she said. "I coordinate many of the activities for the children including the annual church picnic, children's church and special programs at Easter and Christmas." Sharon also contributes as a soloist and member of the Senior Choir.
The Stembridges' daughter, 17-year-old Jasmine who aspires to be a pediatric neonatal nurse, attends Rock Solid Christian School. Also involved in the church's ministry, she sings in the choir and substitute teaches in Sunday school. Son, Charlie Jr. a graduate of Georgia Southern College, is employed with DHR.
The Rev. Stembridge says that the most valuable lesson he has learned is to always live life in a positive manner and to be an example for others. The pastor extends that message through his members as they reach out to the community in preparation of Harvest Sunday this weekend. "Everyone brings canned goods or monetary donations to help the sick and shut-ins," said Stembridge.
In addition to the spacious classrooms, Graves Chapel built a fellowship hall and kitchen two years ago. "Now we are able to serve breakfast before Sunday school to the children who ride the church van," said the pastor's wife.
Graves Chapel A.M.E. Church upholds the belief in the Holy Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Their services include Sunday school at 10:00 a.m. followed by worship at 11:30 a.m. and Wednesday Bible Study at 6:30 p.m. For the past 15 years, they have combined their fifth Sunday service with two other local churches.
The pastor looks to church leader Ebbie Syphoe, one of the most knowledgeable members about the church's history, to get things done. Syphoe shares the pastor's vision to someday build another sanctuary that will hold 400 people.
The pastor's advice to families is to build communication within the home and learn to listen to each other. "Put the Lord first, and teach your children to love their neighbor," he added.
His favorite bible passage is Isaiah 40:31: "but those who hope in the lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."