Monday, June 1, 2009

SCOUTING SMALL CHURCHES


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, transportation in the Tennessee hills and hollows was limited, and people walked or traveled by horse and wagon to church on Sundays. Because churches had to be built within a short distance from a cluster of homes, many of the worship centers sprang up in isolated spots in coves, hollows, and wooded areas. Episcopal missions and tiny churches burgeoned in middle Tennessee, and one of them is a small chapel approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Sewanee, tucked away on Ladds Cove and Kirby Tate Road with an address of Battle Creek, TN, a place reminiscent of a Civil War bivouac.

When we descend the Mountain toward Jasper and Kimball on Interstate 24E, we always encounter 18 wheelers and other vehicles whizzing down and causing me to have tachycardia, so I’m glad to get off the highway and explore some quieter road and calm down. In the three years we’ve been up here, we’ve passed the Martin Springs exit numerous times, wondering what serendipity lay down that road. Saturday, we set out, purposefully, to explore the region. On the recommendation of several friends, we sought an old mission, St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, served by one of our friends at St. Mary’s of Sewanee, The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz, who specializes in small church ministry and who was formerly Executive Director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches.

Of course, we went in the wrong direction and had to double back on a road marked “Dead End,” (but which did not dead end at the small stone building that is St. John the Baptist Church). After we descended deeper into dense woods, we came upon a small clearing and there stood the chapel, resplendent with a typically Anglican, bright red door. The church is surrounded by a white picket fence, and is made completely of river stone, or creek stone, as we spied huge boulders of the same type of rock in the creek running alongside the road. St. John the Baptist isn’t far from Poor Hollow Farm where a hay baling operation is located, but we saw few residences along the way. Three huge white dogs ran out to greet us – strange furry creatures that looked like hybrids of huskies, German shepherds, and Labrador retrievers. When they greeted us, stretched to full length on hind legs, one of them was almost my height and nearly toppled me with his vigorous welcome.

Parishioners in this small church keep their saints huddled around them -- the front yard of St. John the Baptist is filled with tombstones and serves as the cemetery. We surmised that a huge rock standing in the yard was awaiting carving of the church’s name; otherwise, no signage welcomes visitors. Against the bright red door, a stone had been placed, and the dogs circled us as we gingerly removed the stone and went into a rather gloomy interior. Ten pews comprised the seating arrangements, and I estimated that a crowd of 50 might fit on a good Sunday. There were two altars – one against the wall, signifying the days when a priest celebrated with his back to the congregation, and one in front of that relic that allowed for priest and server to move around behind it to celebrate the Eucharist.

The cathedral ceiling of the church creates an illusion of space, and the huge, hand- hewn rafters appear to be very sturdy, having weathered 75 years. Only one service is held on Sundays at 10 a.m., with The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz officiating, often after she has celebrated at St. Mary’s of Sewanee. Susanna is also a professor of Contextual Education and Field Education at the School of Theology, Sewanee, does workshops in music, visioning and goal setting, marketing, and in understanding the context of the small church in the Diocese of East Tennessee – and the larger Anglican fold, which includes the British Isles.

Susanna preaches on Tuesdays, a weekday when we usually attend the Eucharist at St. Mary’s and is the priest I’ve described as a woman with long auburn braids who wears bright colors and rings on every finger. She has given several pithy sermons about “love” and defines the love Christ speaks of as loyalty and commitment and not the “Valentine heart thing but a love committed to living the kind of life Christ lived.” She’s the perfect priest for St. John the Baptist and speaks extemporaneously most of the time – looking down at the open Bible, shutting her eyes and musing, then opening them and saying, “hmm,” letting the Spirit direct her spontaneous thoughts. She’s in Exeter working on a dissertation about small churches in England right now, and we miss her.

If you’re a rambler and frequently explore old structures, St. John the Baptist is a unique small church you might like to visit. The big white dogs are biddable, and the door is always accessible. Just roll away the stone and go inside for a little resurrection and renewal meditation.
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