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Spring Fling at New Hope Methodist to honor Emma Kelly
Statesboro legend grew up in historic church
W New Hope Church photo
New Hope United Methodist Church, shown here during a celebration long ago, is the second-oldest Methodist church in Bulloch County. The church is hosting a Spring Fling benefit to commemorate the life of Statesboro legend Emma Kelly and her part in the history of the church. - photo by Special to the Herald

New Hope United Methodist Church will hold a Spring Fling benefit Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The community is invited to attend the family friendly event with fun, food, fellowship and festivities for all ages. Tickets for the fundraiser are $20, and children younger than 12 are admitted free.

The special event came about through a conversation in the cemetery across the street from the church on Georgia Highway 24.

On a day like many others in the past, New Hope Pastor Jay Williams noticed visitors walking about the cemetery and ventured over, knowing most likely that the curious strollers had a history with the church he pastors.

After all, New Hope United Methodist Church is rich in history itself. Founded in 1804, New Hope is the second-oldest Methodist church in the county. At least one of the grave markers is stamped 1825, and many have illegible identifying names now. Some are Confederate soldiers who had connection to the church.

At this particular cemetery gathering, Williams met Ross Kelly and Freddie Clifton Law. Kelly, the son of Statesboro legend Emma Kelly, and Law, a former member of the church who now lives in Flowery Branch, are distantly related, and the two were researching the gravesites of Emma Kelly's father, Willie Thompson, and some of her half-siblings.

Ross Kelly told Williams that Emma Thompson Kelly grew up in New Hope Methodist Church, as the Thompson farm and general store were less than 2 miles away. Even more notable was the fact that his mother's very first public performance as a pianist took place at New Hope, when she was just 6 years old.

From that conversation, the idea formed to host a celebration of the church where Emma Kelly grew up and first played the piano publicly.

"I feel like I've come full-circle," said Ross Kelly. "Mother went to church at New Hope, performed there as a 6-year-old. Now I've written a book about her, told her story in a production at the Averitt Center's Emma Kelly Theater, and we're back here to tell the story of Mother's growing up in the church."

Ross Kelly will speak about his famous mom at 4 p.m., and his band, the Statesboro Blues, will be the highlight performer from 5-7 p.m., with Motown, R&B and a gospel set, according to Kelly.

Other musicians, including the J. Alan Brown Band, will perform throughout the event.

New Hope, with its slanted floor, tongue-and-groove ceiling, stained-glass windows and rounded altar rail, is on the historical registry. Church historian Rhonda Barrett remembers attending as a child and being extra cautious with her penny or nickel offering.

"If you accidentally dropped it, it could roll all the way to the front on the slanted, wooden floor."

Barrett's children are also members, and she says when her entire family attends church, "We take up a couple of pews."

Another longtime member, Alice Prosser believes she holds the record of the current oldest member. At 93, Prosser is just now stepping back from playing the organ during services. She's played the piano and organ off and on since returning to the church in 1972.

As a member of the church until she moved away at the age of 18, Prosser remembers when her aunt played an organ by pushing the pedals with her feet. That organ, approximately 90 years old now, is still in the social hall of the church.

"I have happy memories of my childhood (at New Hope) with family and friends," she said. "The pastors are always so good. New Hope is friendly and caring. When you're sick, they look after you. It's like one big family."

Call (912) 587-5115 for more information or to purchase tickets. Tickets also will be available to purchase on the day of the event.



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