Column by Sumter Pastor Clay Smith: Spitting worms...


I was working late in my study this week. My desk looks out a window onto a field behind the church building, where I often see our students doing games. This evening, however, was different. The student leaders brought in a big sound system, and I watched in amazement as our students showed up in jeans, cowboy hats and boots. It turns out they were having a "hoedown."

When I grew up, a hoedown was something like a square dance, with a record player and a caller, usually held at the rec center or the old pavilion. One thing was sure: hoedowns never, ever, happened at church. Though our little Baptist church at Rural Route 2 was not particularly down on dancing, it was kept quiet and certainly not done at church. The old joke about Baptists was we were against dancing because we were afraid people would think we were fornicating. When I went off to a Baptist college, no dancing was allowed on campus. Off-campus dances were called "rhythms." Fraternities and sororities had "Oldies Rhythms," and campus ministry sponsored a "Square Rhythm." Now, 40 years later, our students are rhythming out on our back field!

They did look like they were having a good time. I could hear the songs; they weren't dirty at all. Then I got a text from the student pastor inviting me to come out and dance (or rhythm) with the students. They were definitely having more fun than I was, so I put down my pen and went outside.

I like being with students. I think they look at me as a surrogate grandfather. Whatever I do or say, they laugh. I complimented several of them on their cowboy outfits, and then I was tapped on the shoulder. "Pastor Clay, the worm spitting contest is about to begin! You have to participate." Suddenly I realized the student pastor had not invited me out to dance; he had invited me out to spit worms.

Worm spitting is the sport of putting a live worm in your mouth and then spitting it as far as possible. The distance is measured, and a winner is declared. This is the kind of thing student pastors do. This is why I am not a student pastor.

I did go up to the table and look over the worms. An old joke kept going through my mind: Two men went ice fishing. The first fisherman was catching fish after fish. The other one didn't get a bite. The non-catcher asked the catcher, "Hey, how come you're catching fish, and I'm not?" The one catching the fish said, "Mpfhhhfh." The other fisherman said, "What? I don't understand you." The first fisherman again replied, "Mpfhhhfh." Again, the other fisherman said, "I can't understand you." The first fisherman opened his mouth and took out a gob of worms, and said, "You've got to keep your bait warm."

The pressure started mounting on me to participate in this spitting contest. "Come on, Pastor Clay; you can do it!" "Yeah, Pastor Clay! Spit the worm!"

A great advantage of being older and being the lead pastor is you do not have to do things just to make people happy. I smiled and loudly declared, "No, thank you, but I will be the judge of the contest." I thought I was better suited to that role in the evening festivities.

The spitting of the worms began. I watched in disbelief as college-educated ministers and leaders put live worms in their mouths. Seeing this sight, I gagged. This was not a contest for the faint of stomach. The first contestant spit an amazing 15 feet. Then the second spit and made it 20 feet. Then one of our student directors spit his worm 28 feet. There was powerful propulsion behind that worm. It brought a new meaning to the phrase, "I'll huff, and I'll puff…" Our ministry director for girls participated, too. She was reluctant to put the worm in her mouth, but she did. She spit it a grand total of 3 feet. I think she did good to get the worm in her mouth.

The kids laughed, the music started, and I did line dances with the kids and showed how uncoordinated I am. Then it was time for me to leave and go back to the boring world of being a lead pastor.

But as I left, I thought, "Lord, thank you that your love for me does not depend on me spitting a worm." Grace is a wonderful gift.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at