This past weekend, I attend a family reunion and homecoming on a nearby island. This island is uninhabited. No one has lived there permanently since the early 1970’s. The last person born on the island died in 2010. However, every two years, descendants of the families who once lived there, both black and white, return for a day or worship and fellowship. This unique place is called Portsmouth Island.
Since the National Park Service took control of the land in the 1970’s and the island became part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a local historic preservation group has worked to keep the island’s traditions and memories alive. These “Friends of Portsmouth” arrange the biannual reunions and plan the celebrations.
Portsmouth Island is only accessible by water. There are no bridges. Cars aren’t allowed on the island. It’s about a 15 minute ride across the open water south of Ocracoke. Saturday was a beautiful cold, sunny morning. If I could start the day with that level of fresh air blowing in my face, I can’t begin to imagine how different my life would be.
Of the structures remaining on the island (Portsmouth has suffered its share of hurricanes like all of the Outer Banks) the one building which dominates skyline is the Methodist Church. The former resident and their relatives all tell of lives center around their participation in the local Methodist Church. On an island which never had electricity (even after the WPA), existed on subsistence agriculture, and practiced a level racial equality unheard of in the south; the church was the center of their lives.
For most of its history, the Portsmouth church was the other half of the Ocracoke Charge (my current appointment). I’m not certain how often my predecessors boarded much slower boats than the one I took to go over and lead worship in the old church. I’ve been told once or twice a month. In the late 1950’s, as the Portsmouth population dwindled and Ocracoke began to grow, the Portsmouth church was closed. Just as America was experiencing the height of post war growth and productivity, their doors were shuttered. That’s always struck me as sad. Someone always gets left behind when the country is told, “We’ve never had it so good”.
As I went inside the church on Saturday, I tried to see building as anything other than a relic. It wasn’t so much a time capsule as it was any church between Sunday services. This could have been my church a few miles across the water, empty but waiting on the people to return. People could file in any moment and we would have regular worship. That’s not what was happening. We were having a biannual nostalgia service where people talked about what it was like to have church in this building. Our worship service for this day was going to be outside. The church wasn’t coming back to life.
I wondered if someone asked the members of the Portsmouth Methodist Church in 1956 what they thought the Methodist church would look like in 52 years, what they would say. Would they be surprised to know that their sister congregation, just across the water and about to celebrate its 75th birthday, looks just like they did the day they closed? Our hymns are the same, our pews are arranged the same way, the red carpet is identical, the organ is in the same place, and our picture of Jesus is identical. Might they be amazed to know that most of Methodism looks just as it did the day denomination closed their doors?
That scared me. Is this what I’m in ministry for? So the churches I serve can become moderately maintained government run museums?
After 52 years, we’re all doing maintenance ministry in form or another, for a denomination or congregations that will all end up like Portsmouth. Portsmouth is a wake-up call for where we’re headed as the United Methodist Church. People will return and gather and tell wonderful stories about the work and memories of the places we ministered. Methodists are great at reunions and covered dish meals. But that’s not church.
What is to be our legacy? Given our current bent toward self destruction, the churches we built to be outposts of the kingdom and spent so much money to maintain will look just like they do today. The sad part, our apportionment dollars will have vanished and our Federal tax dollars, through the National Park Service will be maintaining churches (as with Portsmouth) that people gave offerings, year after year to support.
The fifty year decline of sameness and the embrace of status quo frozenness happened long before anyone started talking about people, regardless of their gender, getting married in a church. The people on Portsmouth were forgotten by Eisenhower’s America and missed the greatest growth churches witnessed since the Great Awakening. Methodism closed its doors on a dying community with no apparent economic prospects. Perhaps that’s a bigger issue and a trend we ought to examine over the next few years: the left behind, the marginalized, and the poor. It sounds very Biblical, doesn’t it? I believe this to be a better set of priorities. Because frankly, I don’t think Jesus cares about who anybody marries, as long as they love each other.
Richard Lowell Bryant