The morning sun had not yet burned off the mist that settled over Faith Baptist Church in Knoxville and shrouded the cornfields and silos nearby. Even the mockingbirds were not too boisterous yet.
But behind the brick church, with its slender white steeple, lay a construction site teeming with men and women, even whole families, hard at work. There were old men in saggy blue overalls and straw hats, young men in hard hats and running shoes, young women in ponytails and sandals. There were sales managers, accountants, new parents, cancer survivors.
Having given up vacations or driven cross-country at their own expense, they had come to erect a building for the Frederick County church in the spirit of an Amish-style barn-raising. And the tock, tock, tock of hammers a week ago signaled that the massive project was well along just hours after it began.
Before the week was out, a 25,000-square-foot Family Life Center -- big enough for a gym, a kitchen, several offices and more than two dozen classrooms -- rose beside Faith Baptist, thanks to more than 225 people from at least seven states who converged on this western corner of the county.
"This is the largest group that's ever gone out in the Southern Baptist Convention," said Hugh Patrick, an organizer who drove from a Birmingham suburb.
Patrick, 66, one of several volunteers who drove from Alabama, said he has participated in about 45 such projects since 1984, when members of his church traveled to Stillwater, Okla., to help build another. Their work has snowballed as grateful recipients of volunteer labor pledged to help in succeeding years, and their travels have taken them as far as Africa and Brazil.
The Faith Baptist project is intended to serve the church and the community of Knoxville, which is expected to absorb 15,000 new residents in the next five to 10 years, said Loraine Dasch, a Pentagon employee who is the church's assistant project manager.
"It's a gift of the heart," said Dasch, of Brunswick.
The mission also reflected subtle currents of change in the fundamentalist Southern Baptist denomination, which has 16 million members.
Six years ago, amid debate over the role of women in the church, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted the belief that a "wife must submit herself graciously" to her husband. And four years ago, the Baptist Faith and Message Statement was altered to effectively bar women from becoming pastors.
But the weeklong project suggested a more complicated reality, as young women worked side by side with husbands and fathers nailing boards and hammering down tar paper. In the kitchen, some of the older women, who came of age when the church was much stricter, said they could see the day coming when women would reach the pulpit.
"It's going to happen. It already has happened in other denominations," said Lana Hobson, 53, a kindergarten teacher from Mobile, Ala. "It's hard for me to say God's not calling a person to do a particular job."
More than a few kitchen volunteers voiced pride at the sight of younger women hauling lumber, swinging hammers and clambering over the roof.
"I know last year there were more women on the roof than ever before," Hobson said. "They're up on the roof now. I think at one time, even if you wanted to, they wouldn't let you do it."
Last year, she said, she received some good-natured ribbing when she first picked up a hammer. "They laughed at me because I was hammering like a girl. But I am a girl, and I was doing it anyway."
Sleeves rolled up and a hammer in hand, Kristen Seay, 18, said she did not mind choosing hard work over a week at the beach. She has given up parts of other summers for church-sponsored construction projects in Alaska.
"If somebody needs me to pick up a piece of wood, I can do that," said Seay, a college sophomore from Birmingham. She acknowledged that she has crossed a threshold that her mother's generation might not have approved of. But she believes the pulpit should be off-limits to women. "I think that's a man's position, not a woman's, because that's just what I've always been taught," she said.
In November, the Alabama churches responded when the Frederick church sent out its request for help through the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board. The Frederick church detailed the size of the project and its timetable.
Members of First Baptist Church of Center Point, and its sister church, Cross Point Baptist Church, responded, beginning many long-distance telephone calls to coordinate the work ahead. Patrick began assembling people from other states with whom he'd worked on similar projects.
Preparations in advance of the volunteers' arrival went on almost to the last minute, with concrete being poured for the foundation just days before volunteers started showing up.
Volunteers began arriving the weekend of June 5. Some slept in the homes of Frederick County church members or the Holiday Inn. Others bunked in campgrounds, motor homes or classrooms in the church.
By 4 a.m. last Monday, a crew of mostly women arrived at the church to prepare a hearty Southern breakfast: 45 dozen eggs, served scrambled, 40 dozen biscuits with gravy, heaps of sausage and bacon, and grits. The visitors trucked in all the food for the day, except dessert. The hosts were asked to supply that, and they obliged with a table full of cookies, poundcakes, brownies and fudge.
"Years ago, we wouldn't have attempted a job this large," said Marjorie Dykes, 69, of Trussville, Ala.
By 7 a.m., the church parking lot was jammed with cars, vans and motor homes. License plates announced their origins: Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. Bumper stickers proclaimed beliefs: "Planned Parenthood Kills Over 139,000 Children A Year!" one read.
Huge stacks of lumber, bundled in tarps and heavy wire bands, gave off a faint scent of cut pine.
The volunteers broke into 13 crews, each with a different assignment. Some fed pieces of lumber, assembly-line-style, to power saws that whined and screeched. Others, in teams of two, picked their way up a muddy slope to fetch more wood, their shoes slipping in the muck. By 10 a.m., the first exterior wall, about 135 feet long and 10 feet high, was up, and volunteers began threading electrical wiring into the framework under the guidance of licensed contractors.
"It's just hands-on, adding to the kingdom," said the Rev. Ryan Whitley, 42, pastor of First Baptist Church of Center Point. "For most people, the easy thing to do is to write a check. I don't mind writing a check, but I sure like to put my own blood and sweat into it."
It was all good fun, or almost all, for Daniel Seay. The 10-year-old from Birmingham needed first aid and reassurance in the church kitchen after he dinged his hand -- twice -- with a hammer. After a few minutes, he was back outside, wearing a glove on the injured hand.
"Hit the right nail," his father, Chris Seay, gently counseled after the boy returned to the job. "The metal nail -- not the thumbnail."
By Wednesday night, the outlines of the building had taken shape, and the churches joined together in a joyful evening service to celebrate. The visitors presented their hosts with a collection of more than $1,500 gathered from the workers.
"Ain't it great," Whitley told the crowd, "that just three days ago, this was just a slab with concrete walls, and now it's being used for God's worship."