Friday, July 1, 2011

Crossroads Summer 2011

This article appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Crossroads, The Episcopal Rural Workers Fellowship magazine.

            I’ve been interested in rural and small town ministry since I was a little boy riding out with my father Dr. Nelson Rightmyer to the 2:30 Sunday afternoon service at St. George’s Indian River Hundred in Sussex County, Delaware, while my mother took a richly deserved nap.  My father served there 1937-47. We lived in Lewes in winter with Sunday services at 8 and 11 and in Rehoboth Reach at 9:30. From Memorial Day to Labor Day we moved to Rehoboth Beach and the schedule was reversed.

            St. George’s parishioners were local farmers, Some of the families had been members since the chapel was built in 1719. The service was usually Evening Prayer. I must have been six when I insisted one spring Sunday on wearing my first pair of long pants. I used to sit next to the organist and while I was standing for the sermon hymn an early wasp crawled up the inside of my pant leg. When I sat down it stung, and the congregation waited while my father took me out, removed the stinger, daubed my leg with mud, and I quit crying.

            The church was built near a stream. One year beavers built a dam and the pond washed over the road. Another time the farmers at St. George’s asked for prayers for rain. They were offered at 8, 9:30, and 11 and by 2:00 the rain was coming down so hard the road was covered over and St. George’s service had to be cancelled.

            My father taught church history and liturgics at the Divinity School in Philadelphia from 1947 to 1952 and then served at St. John’s Western Run Parish near Glyndon, Maryland. This was a rural parish but most landowners were gentlemen farmers who worked in Baltimore financial institutions. Much of the money had been made importing guano from Chili for Midwestern farms. The Greenspring Hunt used to meet on Thanksgiving Day after church and the blessing of the hunt was a tourist attraction.

            I went to Johns Hopkins and General Seminary and served first at St. Anne’s Annapolis and then at a new suburban mission at Joppatowne in Harford County. After six years there my wife Lucy, our son, and I moved to Good Shepherd, Asheboro, a county seat town in the center of North Carolina.  Most of the parishioners were mill executives, small businessmen or professionals, very few farmers, though a number of them had been raised on the farm and had gardens. When I arrived I was told to roll up my car windows and lock the doors in summer. If I didn’t, I was told, I would return to find in the front seat a bag of zucchini. We did operate an informal garden exchange. We put a card table in the narthex; gardeners left produce; others left money for the needy. Our daughter was born in Asheboro.

            Six years later I was called to Redeemer, Shelby, North Carolina, another county seat town west of Charlotte with a similar congregation, many gardeners but very few farmers. The congregation encouraged my participation in the community and as President of the ministers association I came to know many rural clergy. One of the country Baptist clergy introduced me to the “prophet’s chamber” – a bedroom and bath in the educational building for visiting revival preachers. This room kept the parishioners from arguing about or fighting over who was to keep the visitor, and also took the pressure off the church pastor.

          After nine years, the last five marked by the deaths of all four parents and other family stress, we moved to Durham where I served on the staff of the General Board of Examining Chaplains, helping write, administer, and evaluate the General Ordination Examination. I also served as priest-in-charge at Good Shepherd, Ridgeway, off I-85 near the Virginia line, home of a distinctive and delicious local cantaloupe. It was a small congregation with no running water in the church but surrounded by large trees which sufficed when it was served by male clergy. Then they were served by a woman priest and built an outhouse. Shortly after I came the county decided to run water and sewer lines down the road in front of the church. To connect while the ditch was open would cost much less than to connect later. We got a grant from the diocesan foundation and with local support built a large picnic shelter with an enclosed bathroom, later named in my honor. The story told locally was that their city preacher got them running water.

            The General Board office moved to Connecticut and we retired to Asheville where our daughter lives with her husband and daughter. Our son is in Knoxville, Tennessee. In retirement I served St. Paul’s Lake James, near Morgsanton, a small congregation of local people and retirees and supply in western North Carolina. I serve at the healing service at St. George’s and once a month at Craggy Prison.  Throughout my ministry I have worked in Christian Ecumenism, helped begin the Moravian Episcopal Dialogue which recently resulted in a full communion agreement, and served on the North Carolina Episcopal United Methodist dialogue which has now become a national dialogue. 

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