Giving thanks in Hopeful, Georgia

Joshua Baggs, a farmer in Hopeful, Ga., talks about gratitude ahead of Thanksgiving. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)
Caption
Joshua Baggs, a farmer in Hopeful, Ga., talks about gratitude ahead of Thanksgiving. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

In optimistically named farming community, gratitude is year round

HOPEFUL, Ga. – Joshua Baggs stood watching his cattle wander a pasture as the sun fell on his back.

It was the week before Thanksgiving in this optimistically named southwest Georgia farming community where he grew up. Baggs, 42, a former Florida State offensive lineman, pondered what he’s thankful for in 2021, the second year of the coronavirus pandemic. The second year of death and devastation, school closures, canceled ballgames and trips. The second year of Zoom fatigue and connections strained by new distance.

Southwest Georgia was an early national hotspot for COVID in 2020, before cases swelled in metro Atlanta and the rest of the state. As of last week, the state Department of Public Health reported Georgia had surpassed 30,000 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths.

Amid the sorrow and struggles, Baggs is grateful for the life he has. He’s married with two young kids who he coaches in several sports. He farms the land he was raised on. He often stares in amazement at the cattle race across a lush green pasture, at a newborn calf stumbling into life, at something growing. And Baggs works with his father, who is also his best friend.

“It’s doing what you love to do,” Baggs said.

In a community whose very name is a reminder to keep going, gratitude is tradition. Hopeful is an unincorporated Mitchell County area of rolling farmland and old buildings full of memories. It was named after Hopeful Baptist Church, which sits at – and itself serves as – the center of the community founded in the late 1800s. The church is the central gathering place, because a large chunk of the perhaps 250 people who live here are members. There also aren’t many other big buildings that aren’t barns or warehouses. Hopeful has no restaurants, no stores. It does have a peanut company, a youth camp, farms passed down through generations.

Each year, a few days before Thanksgiving, the church hosts a gathering where people share what they’re thankful for. Similar discussion follows during the potluck in the fellowship hall.

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Hopeful Baptist Church is at the center of the small southwest Georgia farming community of Hopeful. It's been here since the late 1880s. Members moved the church from Burke County after, the legend says, one of them noticed the area’s beauty while passing through to get his brother out of jail in another county. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Hopeful Baptist Church is at the center of the small southwest Georgia farming community of Hopeful. It's been here since the late 1880s. Members moved the church from Burke County after, the legend says, one of them noticed the area’s beauty while passing through to get his brother out of jail in another county. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)
Caption
Hopeful Baptist Church is at the center of the small southwest Georgia farming community of Hopeful. It's been here since the late 1880s. Members moved the church from Burke County after, the legend says, one of them noticed the area’s beauty while passing through to get his brother out of jail in another county. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

“Our gratitude is important to us because it reminds us to be thankful for the blessings that God has provided to us,” said Pastor Clay Cloud.

“We’re all thankful,” said Jan Oliver, 81, “that we can come back to this church.” She’s attended the church nearly all her life and it has given her life to worship again with neighbors and kin.

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Jan Oliver, 81, in front of the ancient oak tree where members of Hopeful Baptist Church, including Oliver, gather annually for a Christmas celebration. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Jan Oliver, 81, in front of the ancient oak tree where members of Hopeful Baptist Church, including Oliver, gather annually for a Christmas celebration. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)
Caption
Jan Oliver, 81, in front of the ancient oak tree where members of Hopeful Baptist Church, including Oliver, gather annually for a Christmas celebration. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Like many places of worship, Hopeful Baptist Church went virtual for long months in the pandemic.

At first, it seemed OK to watch from home. But internet service can be spotty in Hopeful. Cloud would be in the middle of some important point, preaching to the empty sanctuary, and his flock would see him freeze.

“All of a sudden, that little circle starts,” Baggs said, mimicking the International Symbol for Buffering with his index finger.

The church’s return to in-person services — there’s still a livestream, now with upgraded internet — has brought relief and joy. With COVID numbers slowing, restrictions have eased across the state. Earlier this month, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lifted the city’s indoor mask mandate. School closures are less frequent. Sporting events are back. The Braves won the World Series, delivering the state a longed-for win.

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Cows rest in the waning afternoon sun in Hopeful, Ga. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Cows rest in the waning afternoon sun in Hopeful, Ga. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)
Caption
Cows rest in the waning afternoon sun in Hopeful, Ga. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

The other night, Baggs’ son’s football team of 7 and 8-year-olds finished their season. It was a crushing loss followed by tears in the eyes of the boys and their coach.

“But we finished the year 10 and 2,” Baggs said.

Sometimes the blessing is a bright side.

Sitting in his sunny farmhouse, Ralph Davis, 79, said he was thankful for “life itself.”

That wasn’t a pat answer. Davis’ health is in decline. He had COVID and is still missing his senses of smell and taste. Recently, a steakhouse employee in Savannah had to save him from choking on a piece of meat. Davis, who’d been afraid and turned purple at the time, now told the story, laughing.

“That is something to be thankful for,” Davis said.

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Ralph Davis, 79, is thankful this year, as ever, for living in Hopeful, Ga., where some call him the unofficial mayor. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Ralph Davis, 79, is thankful this year, as ever, for living in Hopeful, Ga., where some call him the unofficial mayor. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)
Caption
Ralph Davis, 79, is thankful this year, as ever, for living in Hopeful, Ga., where some call him the unofficial mayor. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Davis, like others in Hopeful, listed the place and its people high on his list. One of his ancestors helped move the original Hopeful Baptist Church from Burke County after, the legend says, noticing the area’s beauty while passing through to get his brother out of jail in another county.

Reggie Bostick, 67, a farmer who also sits on the Mitchell County commission, said he’s traveled and found there are great people everywhere. But these are the people he chooses.

“Everybody just loves everybody,” he said.

Bostick remembers the trials they’d passed through together — floods, fires, storms, deaths. The community helped carry him and his family in 2006, when his son, Reggie Cleve Bostick Jr., 22, died in an accident with a truck.

The son had been finishing up his agribusiness degree at the University of Georgia. He intended to go home and become a farmer at his father’s side.

The elder Reggie now sees other fathers and sons working family farms together in Hopeful, sitting together in Hopeful Baptist Church. He aches that he can’t have that piece of the life he wanted. But as he watches, he’s grateful for what the other fathers have.

“I’m so thankful,” Bostick said. “This community, I think, is blessed.”

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Reggie Bostick, a resident of Hopeful and a county commissioner, with his dog Jake. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Reggie Bostick, a resident of Hopeful and a county commissioner, with his dog Jake. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)
Caption
Reggie Bostick, a resident of Hopeful and a county commissioner, with his dog Jake. (JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

Credit: Joshua Sharpe

- Reporter Scott Trubey contributed to this article.