Southern Lights: The Old Preacher Man on Highway 61

His hearing was poor and he shuffled about with the aid of a walker, but 93-year-old H.D. Dennis could still preach to anyone who happened by the one-time grocery store that became a church.

It was a most unusual church of no particular denomination, faded and worn, with 400 feet of hand-painted scripture of plywood signs and cement block towers –- with a weatherworn school-bus-turned-sanctuary that had been parked in the garden for years. That particular day I was this preacher’s flock.

Margaret’s Grocery and Market

I’d been headed to downtown Vicksburg, Mississippi, taking the back roads because I had nothing but time on my hands. A scheduled photo shoot an hour away had been postponed, so I took a different route back to the hotel. Highway 61 is a down-at-the heels stretch of industrial zoned property near the edge of town that had seen better days.

I wasn’t expecting Margaret’s Grocery and Market, Home of the Double-Headed Eagle, but that’s the best thing about back roads: stumbling across the unexpected. I couldn’t keep myself from pulling over.

The Rev. H.D. Dennis added towers, archways, and signs outside Margaret's Grocery and Market to draw people off the highway so he could preach to them.

I knocked on the screen door, ignoring the “closed” sign. Margaret answered but said her husband wasn’t feeling too well that afternoon. I said I’d come back another time. “Could I just make a few pictures?” I asked. She smiled and said, “That’d be just fine.”

I marveled at the folk art that surrounded the place. I promised myself to return before driving back to the delta farmland where I hoped to be shooting the next morning.

A Tour with the Rev. Dennis

As I walked back to my car, I heard the screen door open. The Rev. Dennis slowly made his way outside. He had dressed in a tattered but freshly ironed shirt, I guessed because his wife told him a fellow with a camera was outside and he wanted to look presentable. We talked for a while. I sat right beside him on the porch and spoke in my best “hard-of-hearing” voice, but I’m not sure he heard me.

Rev. Dennis, 93, shuffles with the aid of a walker outside his wife's small grocery store that he transformed into a folk-art-covered church on the outskirts of Vicksburg, Miss.

No matter. Pastor Dennis seized the opportunity to open his well-worn Bible and share from the Book of Matthew. His eyes, though glazed with age and cataracts, still sparkled with the prospect of preaching to a “young fellow.”

Then H.D. escorted me around to show off his handiwork that had taken nearly 30 years to complete, though I doubted he would ever consider it finished.

“Every one of those bricks I put there myself, and it was perfectly laid,” he said proudly. “Did you ever see any bricks so perfect?” he asked. No, I hadn’t, I said. He would’ve showed every brick, block and hand-painted signs if he’d had the stamina.

We strolled through his Scripture Garden, walking among the signs that motorists driving past simply can’t ignore. He unlocked the pink and yellow bus that was a permanent fixture in his garden.

It had taken years of scavenging for the beads, golf balls, trinkets and stuff of garage sales and dollar stores that the preacher used to decorate the inside of the bus. The entire inside of the bus had been lined with thousands of colorful odds and ends glued into a mosaic that words simply couldn’t describe.

An Audience of One

H.D. stood at the pulpit just behind the driver’s seat and continued to preach. It was a hot, stuffy old bus, but it was also God’s House, a place of worship. So I sat down on a dusty, worn bus seat and listened.

One thing I’ve come to know: there’s no such thing as a “retired” preacher. Once God calls someone to preaching, no opportunity is missed. H.D. preached as though his church were standing room only, even though I was the only one there to hear him.

Margaret joined us a bit later that afternoon as we picked up where we left off on the front porch. She doted on her husband of 30 years, making sure he was doing OK. She hugged him and left us to talk.

H.D. and Margaret

H.D. married her in 1979. She was the “Widow Rogers” back then, and ran Margaret’s Grocery. H.D. promised he would transform her humble shop into a church that would glorify God — if she would marry him. She agreed, and for the next 29 years H.D. would slowly build his church to preach to whomever came by.

He used whatever materials he could find –- cement blocks, bricks, sheets of corrugated steel, gravel, donated plywood and dozens of cans of red and white paint, more glass beads and baubles, cement, pieces of broken pottery and colored glass, even busted mirrors –- nothing was too humble or useless to get folded into his shrine. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say.

It was all used to invite Jews and Christians, blacks and whites alike to worship there. “God have no white church and he don’t have no black church,” says one sign. “Please Go to Church,” encourages another.

A Final Prayer

The sun was setting, and it was time to go. I felt privileged to meet the preacher and his wife, and document a part of the South that would likely soon vanish. I pressed my dinner money into H.D.’s weathered hands and then we prayed together.

I left Vicksburg the next day after my original assignment was finished. I promised myself to visit H.D. and his lovely wife again if I was ever back that way.

Sadly, Margaret went home to be with her Lord a few months back. I heard that H.D., unable to live alone, was now in a nursing home. Though a local church had been given the responsibility to care for the property, I would be surprised if it was still standing on my next trip to Vicksburg. Perhaps a new business park or a strip mall would be in its place soon. Progress and all.

I have pictures and the memories. They’ve not been published until now. They reaffirm my passion for the back roads of the South — to see what lies over the next hill.

Rev. Dennis prays at the rear of his bus.

13 Responses to “Southern Lights: The Old Preacher Man on Highway 61”

  1. This is stunning and exactly why I have a camera in my hand. I may never make a living with it, but I can make memories...just like this.

  2. As a native Mississippian and a photographer, I'm so glad you documented this piece of history.

  3. One of my favorite photographers is Robin. He cares so much for his subjects and his photos show his passion for the story.

    Great Job!!!!!

  4. These are fantastic photos and the story is an added bonus. Loved reading this while viewing the photos. I may never see this in person but to have captured this for posterity was a wonderful thing to do. I'm glad you took the backroad. Maybe more of us should do the same. Thanks... 🙂

  5. very cool.

  6. thank you x

  7. Great story. Thank you

  8. This is so touching and beautiful. Thank you for capturing it and for sharing it with us.

  9. For over 25 years I have been visiting Margaret and the Rev. and it was so important for me to see it again for the first time through your eyes. They have a special place inside of me and over the years I have begun to care deeply about them. So thank you for seeing and being there. They gave of themselves for the community and so many people were never able to make that first step in walking into their world. You helped.

  10. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I see and feel a lot love in this your pictures. The Dennis' are the type of gems you rarely meet in life these days. I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet them and experience their love personally.

  11. Mr. Nelson, Thank you for the wonderful story of the Dennis'. God's people are everywhere. Just think of how many folks the Dennis' were able to teach the story of Yeshua! Thank you for the beautiful pictures.

  12. Thanks so much for this story. Isn't there some folk art museum (say, the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan) that could preserve this bit of Americana for posterity. What a shame if not.

  13. Beautiful photos and a reminder of a special place that is rapidly falling apart. I was there this past weekend and it was sad to see the rapid decay that has set in after a few years of neglect. It may already be past the point of preservation.

Leave a Reply