Sometimes missing church happens, but in this day and age with all the technology available, you can find a service to livestream any hour of the day. That is, you can find a service to livestream unless of course you are visiting Tangier Island.
When you go to Tangier you are going there to disconnect, and disconnect you shall, because unless you stand by this one large mud puddle near the beach or this a certain plank on the seldom used dock behind the Muddy Toes library, you won’t have enough signal to text, let alone find a sermon.
I’d resigned myself to being churchless this past Sunday, until, as we rode the golf cart around the corner to our B&B, I saw the marquee. Service after service was listed. I saw that there would be 2 services that evening and my curiosity was piqued.
Cats, gnats, beach, bikes and ice cream, I have experienced Tangier. But I’d never stepped foot inside the little white church on the corner. As it turned out, we’d come on homecoming weekend. No football games and pep rallies for this event, homecoming weekend is just what it sounds like. When the folks who’ve left the island return. There is a festival style party with bounce houses and a stage. People who’ve gone off to serve on the mainland in ministry come home and help lead in the many services offered all weekend long.
I have in years past looked with curiosity at the small white church on the corner, but we’ve never been there during a service. This would be my opportunity to find out just what church on the island is like.
I entered up the steps into a small entry. No signs necessary to find my way to the sanctuary, I needed only allow myself to be led by preacher who grasped my hand as I entered and swinging our handshake to the left guided me a step and a half forward into a wide well light room.
Oh, I thought, I know this kind of church.
The light came generously through beautiful stained glass windows. The wooden pews formed sort of a semi-circle facing the pulpit which was raised about the congregation a few steps. The pews were soft and shiny and one could imagine that in just the right Easter dress you could slide from one end to the other if you got a good start. This church and others like it smell the same, a mixture of dampness (this one with a tinge of salt air), Murphey’s Oil Soap and a few centuries of potluck casseroles.
This church would be the same as others I’d been to, I was certain, where eyes don’t lift 3 feet above the ground the entire service, gazing from hymnals during singing, watching your knees during the sermon, and checking in your purse or your pockets for a mint or something else to pass the time.
A strong woman took to the front and raised a mighty welcome and immediately my head popped up. She greeted everyone and I strained to understand her thick island accent. For the first minute or two, she could have been talking about coffee and crabs, boats and buoys, for all I know, but it was pleasant. After a moment, the strange vowels sounded natural I could understand her, and I was smiling with her joy expressed of services I’d missed that morning and the day before, of seeing friends and family back to visit. “Hey!” she’d called. An island word, a greeting so common to her and a joy she’d found to share with a man she knew from Africa, teaching him how on Tangier one local greets another. “Hey!” the congregation rang back.
Something seemed to let me know I wouldn’t be knee watching this service. I looked from window to window, from pew to pew, and the familiarity of an old time church was still in the tangible building, but something fresh was in the room, too.
As the service got underway, we sang old hymns, songs that I’ve been singing to myself this summer and missing. I love the new worship music, but sometimes it’s nice to sing “How Great Thou Art” without a kicking drum solo in the middle. One lady in the choir had a solo, and though the style of her singing was classic, it was full of newness. A duet of two middle aged men sang and old song and sounded about like two pleasant men singing until something moved the songs from their mouths, deeper, and it resonated from within them and spilled thickly into the air around us all.
The missionary woman came again and invited joys and concerns and testimonies, and people rose to their feet and shared, joy upon joy and then one man, certainly in his early 60s stood and shared how grateful he was for his salvation. With a tremble in his voice and a tear in his eye, he spoke more sweetly about how much his faith meant to him than I may have ever heard. Ever. So unexpected to me and so precious was that moment, that I could only think “What is this place?”
The visiting speaker took to the pulpit and said that when he’d been asked to speak on homecoming weekend, he knew right away what he’d preach from. I tried to pull up a fast verse in my head with the word home in it and predict where we were going, but he went straight into his verse, from Proverbs 22 “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” Well, that doesn’t have the word home in it at all!
He gave a fine message where he spoke about his favorite national landmarks, and then moved to his favorite island landmarks. He shared the story of the history of faith on the island brought ashore with Rev. Joshua Thomas, a great story unto itself. He told of revivals that had happened on the island, where hundreds of people came forward to receive Christ. He referenced a revival on the island as recently as 1996.
Then he made this point. The landmarks WILL fall. The island, which is slowly being taken back into the sea as they pray for the funding needed for a second sea wall, the island too will fall. The people, good and faithful though they be, will also pass, from this life to the next. They are not immune to the passage of time. None of these are the landmarks. Not even, he pointed out, would he say that the revivals were landmarks. Those prayers and songs and times ended and people moved on from the altars.
No, he said, Christ is our landmark. Remove not Christ from your life, for He alone is the only which is unpassable, unshakable. He will remain.
And he closed expressing hope for another revival. It doesn’t matter that the most recent revival they’d experienced was in 1996, no time was too soon for more of God. His hope was for revival. His hope, he said, is that when people speak of Tangier Island that they say “They are a godly people.”
I will say of Tangier Island, they are a godly people. Do I know each of them? No. Do I think that they are free from the ins and outs and ups and downs of life? No. But this I know. While we on the mainland download and upgrade our faith, Tangier carries on, with hymnals and stained glass, with pews and and a pulpit. The service I experienced was dynamic and dear. It is not something you can manufacture for a special weekend. It is very obviously natural to them.
If you get the opportunity to go visit Tangier, include in your stay over a trip to the little white church on the corner.
Two last notes worth mentioning, if only so I can remember them years from now.
First, on the island there is a second church that I didn’t get to attend. I thought about the old joke about the man shipwrecked on the island who when rescuers arrived they found he’d built many small buildings. He showed them around his village he’d built pointing here and there saying “That’s my house, that’s the diner where I eat. That’s my church.” They saw another structure he hadn’t named and asked about it. He made a disgusted face and said “That’s the church I used to go to.” I wondered what it must be like to be on an island with two churches. On the mainland, we often ignore the churches in our neighborhood, viewing them as competition or not viewing them at all in our business to only view ourselves.
In the sermon, the man was thanking God for all the ways He’d blessed Tangier and set Himself among them. In this piece, he took time to thank God for the other church, for their work and their ministry to the island.
And secondly, as we entered the church there was a dog trying desperately to gain access to the sanctuary. He was shooed away repeatedly and I chuckled at how interested he was. Towards the end of the service, a woman rose and tiptoed out of the front door and returned a moment later. A minute or two after this, as our heads were bowed in prayer, I saw the woman in front of me jump a little. She spun around and mouthed something to people behind me. Leaning forward, her shoulders went up and down with a little effort and then she popped back up, carrying the holy little mutt and taking him back to the entrance, she pitched him a little unceremoniously out the door.
It was as if I was reading a left out chapter from James Herriot’s Dog Stories. ❤
This service, these moments are enough to encourage you to give Tangier a visit and to find that church in session, but if that’s not in your ability, pray for those people, for their hope for revival and for their sea wall.