U.S. 278. If you live in southern Beaufort County, you'll likely find yourself driving that road every day. Running from the Hardeeville line to the bridges to Hilton Head Island, the highway moves locals and visitors past a long line of car dealerships, businesses and neighborhoods. Along the way are people, places and stories you don't know — get to know them in this occasional series. Come drive the road with us.
She was alone when the spell came over her in her living room, a space with wood-panel walls and tidy red carpeting and, in nearly every corner — on tables and stands and in display cases — angels.
Those holy sentries stood watch as she eased her 90-year-old body into a large cloth recliner. The chair, puffy and gray, rose from the floor like a thunderhead, and atop it she began to weather the storm that clouded her head and drowned her balance.
“And I just asked the Lord, I said, ‘Please help me with that dizziness,’” Linda Farmer recently said, remembering that August morning. “I said, ‘I need your help.’ I said, ‘I’ve prayed before, but Lord, I need you now.’”
Moments earlier that morning she’d shuffled from her bedroom to the living area to finish getting dressed. Farmer — a petite woman with short, neat hair that topped her like a brown cotton ball — used a walker, and her back bowed when she stood. But she always looked her best before leaving the house: freshly painted nails and carefully applied makeup, brightly colored shoes — some with sequins — that sparkled like her smile.
She lived alone in the house on Bluffton’s Flounder Street, as she often had during the past three decades, since cancer took her husband, Alton. Of her three children — all boys — she’d buried two, the latter whose death in December 2016 coincided with major changes happening to her church, which she’d attended for 60 years.
There were days that winter when she didn’t want to eat. Friends and family brought her bottles of Ensure and urged her to drink it. She lost weight.
The changes at Indian Hill Baptist Church had been months in the making. Shortly after her son passed, after the new year came and went, Indian Hill — founded in the 1880s, according to church documents, and one of the oldest churches in the area — was no more.
It merged with another church to form a new congregation. That congregation played different music and worshiped in chairs instead of pews. It looked different, younger, with African-American, Hispanic and Latino faces sitting alongside white ones.
It remained Southern Baptist.
And while it occupied the same building, it was no longer called Indian Hill.
Some of her friends decided to worship elsewhere. She asked God what she should do, if she should stay or go. Then she waited for a response, which she would get.
Now, on this August morning, she again prayed and waited, and fought the spell.
When they left Savannah and moved to Bluffton in 1957, Farmer said a prayer.
A simple one. An important one. A prayer, like many before and since, born of uncertainty.
“I asked the Lord to help me love (Indian Hill) as good as I did the (church) in Savannah,” Farmer said.
She and her family attended Savannah Christian Fellowship before relocating to Beaufort County. They’d followed friends to the area. Farmer’s husband kept his job with paper-and-pulp company Union Camp in Port Wentworth. She stayed home and raised three children who liked to play in the water near Flounder Street.
At the time, Indian Hill had just reopened for services for the first time in more than a decade, according to church histories, after a 1940 storm badly damaged the building.
Over the next decade the church would struggle to operate full-time, using “supply pastors” to get by. But fundraisers and donations led to the construction of a new sanctuary in 1973. Membership was 290 by 1976, almost five times what it was about a decade before.
The growth continued, and Farmer and her family were part of it. She taught Sunday school and led Indian Hill’s Women’s Missionary Auxiliary. Her husband, a deacon who helped maintain church facilities, was honored when the old sanctuary — previously converted from a parsonage to Sunday school rooms — was dedicated as the Alton Farmer Educational Building.
He cut the grass at the cemetery long before U.S. 278 was widened and westbound cars hurtled by within inches of some of its headstones.
And he held up his wife’s arm one time in church when the preacher asked if anyone had been responsible for someone being saved.
She’d looked at her husband as he raised her hand.
“And he said, ‘You know you caused me getting saved,’” Farmer said, remembering the moment.
She smiled as she told the story, perched on the same gray chair she’d sunk into weeks earlier, waiting for God’s response to her dizziness.
Stephanie Higgins, driving to pick up Farmer that August morning, didn’t know her friend was battling the spell.
For the past couple of years, Higgins had been volunteering her time and car. One time her Mini Cooper was in the shop, and the dealership had given her a loaner — a convertible. It was a chilly morning, but Farmer wanted to ride with the top down.
“She bundled up in a blanket,” Higgins said. “She loved riding to church in a convertible.”
Higgins was one of several people checking on Farmer last December as the woman’s son was dying and Indian Hill moved toward its merger with Crosspoint Church.
That merger, according to Higgins and Andrew Bowman — both former Indian Hill members — was necessary. Crosspoint, a growing congregation, needed space. Indian Hill needed to modernize. Both congregations survived within and because of each other, hence the new church’s new name: New Life.
“It was a big change,” Farmer said. “The name of the church, I guess, was the biggest. I really, at first, really hated to see ‘Indian Hill’ taken off.”
She kept writing offering checks on Sundays but made them payable to “Church” — she couldn’t yet write “New Life.”
She was saddened when the pews were traded for chairs: after a fall a couple years earlier, she’d learned to wedge herself at a 45-degree angle in the end of a pew, which felt good to her back. The new chairs didn’t sit right.
And as old friends left the new church, some told her she should do the same.
She continued to pray.
“At the very first sign of anything that troubles her, she begins praying,” Higgins said. “It’s her first line of defense.”
So, when Higgins arrived at Farmer’s house that August morning and learned of the spell, she wasn’t surprised by what she found.
Some, including Higgins and Bowman, say it seems like Farmer has a direct line to God.
Farmer’s old pastor, Rev. Guy Boyd, who served Indian Hill from 2001 to 2006, said she’s underlined every sentence on every page of her Bible. When she has trouble sleeping, she might turn to a book of word puzzles — scripture verses, their words hidden within rows and columns of jumbled letters on the next page. She prays for a friend with Parkinson’s Disease and tells her she’ll one day walk again — Farmer knows it.
“I think, basically, her faith is unbreakable,” Bowman said.
As Farmer coped with losing a child, as her old church morphed into something else, Higgins was struck by Farmer’s resolve and the way she embraced change.
After a while, Farmer started writing “New Life Church” on her Sunday offering checks.
When the church found her a new chair — one with arm rests that allowed her to sit comfortably — and placed it at the head of a row, she was appreciative.
And she was thankful for New Life Pastor Ruben DeJesus, whose visits during those trying times she welcomed.
“It’s still Indian Hill to me,” Farmer, who just turned 91, recently said of her church — and more than once. “And it’ll always be Baptist.”
And yet she loves DeJesus’ preaching — “He has ‘Jesus’ in his name, you know,” she’ll say with smile. She loves Associate Pastor Phillip Cox’s guitar playing. She loves that folks from different cultures come together to worship.
“As long as the Bible is preached, she doesn’t care how it’s all packaged up,” Higgins said.
God, Farmer said, never told her to leave the church.
And that’s where she was trying to go that August Sunday morning when the dizziness hit.
As she sat in the chair and prayed, she felt an energy flood through her.
The spell was broken.
Linda Farmer, New Life’s oldest member, was ready for church.