Friday, August 21, 2015


Chapel of the Prodigal, Montreat College
Hardly a summer passes without our finding serendipity in North Carolina. This week it was umbrella weather when we left Sewanee, Tennessee, and heavy rain followed us on the drive to Asheville, North Carolina where we spent Monday night. Light rain fell the following morning when we set out for Montreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a town that straddles the eastern Continental Divide and is noted for being the home of Billy Graham, the renowned U.S. evangelist.

We took refuge in the Chapel of the Prodigal at Montreat College where we viewed the Return of the Prodigal Fresco by Benjamin Long who has gained international fame as a master of true Fresco. The Return of the Prodigal is one of eleven frescoes on "The Fresco Trail in North Carolina" and depicts the biblical story told in Luke 15. This fresco is the focal point of a chapel that was dedicated in 1998 with the words "Strength and Beauty are in His sanctuary" (Psalm 96:6).

Montreat College was first established in 1916 as Montreat Normal School and is now a co-ed college with a four-year curriculum dedicated to being "Christ centered, student focused, and service driven," and is operated independent of the Montreat Conference Center. The town, college, and conference center (which serves the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.) are three separate entities, but all serve as centers for spiritual and physical renewal. Montreat is another of those "thin" places similar to St. Mary's on the bluff at Sewanee. In 1897, Montreat Assembly was the first religious assembly established in the Swannanoa Valley by an interdenominational group, and in 1906, Montreat was purchased by a group of Presbyterians.

We climbed the steps to The Assembly Inn, a rock and marble building overlooking Lake Susan that
Assembly Inn, Montreat
accommodates guests from around the world who attend conferences on leadership, spiritual formation, multi-faith, seasons of the Christian year, recreation and radical hospitality, and is available for special retreats. Eight hallways in the Inn are named for trees and shrubs found in the Swannanoa Valley: Chestnut, Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron, Maple, Sourwood, Poplar, and Oak. Handsome Mission style furniture occupies the spacious rooms in this hospitable place where Billy Graham and Ruth Bell Graham held their wedding reception in 1943.

The Assembly Inn gained national notice in 1942 when the U.S. government housed 264 German and Japanese diplomats and their families while they waited exchange for American families of diplomat and missionaries in Axis countries who were caught behind enemy lines when WWII broke out. The German and Japanese diplomats were restricted to the Assembly Inn and the property fronting Lake Susan and were looked after by State Department officials and guards. The Germans were eventually allowed to return to their families, and Japanese men were sent to an internment camp in Texas, but during the stay between October 29, 1942 and April 30, 1943, the Inn made a $75,000 profit!

Lake Susan, Montreat 
This week-end, leaders from the Presbyterian Church and public life will gather at Montreat to conduct a "Teach-In for Rededicating Ourselves to the Dream," celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin L. King's address to the Christian Action Conference in Montreat. The major question posed to participants will be: "How can the church of today answer the challenges King posed in Anderson Auditorium at Montreat in 1965?" The intention of this conference is to engage an intergenerational community in embracing and lifting up Dr. King's unfulfilled dream... "standing up against what he persistently labeled as the horrible scourges of our national and world orders: racism, poverty, war, and materialism."

And there's more! As we walked out of the Assembly Inn, we spied a shop overlooking Lake Susan, which we thought might be a bookstore. However, inside we found a plethora of handcrafted treasures that represented cultures of more than 30 countries including the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The products of "Ten Thousand Villages" are showcased in this shop as part of a fair trade organization that markets handicrafts created by unemployed and underemployed artisans from throughout the world. "Ten Thousand Villages" gives fair income to international artisans. The income empowers them to improve their housing and provides education, healthcare, and nutritious food for the artisans' families.

Ten Thousand Villages shop at Montreat
"Ten Thousand Villages" has been operating since 1946 and is dedicated to solidarity and justice in the thirty countries with which it trades. I bought a beautiful scarf made by an artisan in Bangladesh, a bar of cucumber soap from India, and a children's book entitled In the Trunk of Grandma's Car, the story of a Mennonite woman named Edna Ruth Byler. Byler initiated the "Ten Thousand Villages" project when she traveled from the U.S. to Puerto Rico in 1946, brought back embroidery work done by women who struggled to feed their families, and sold it to her sewing circle in Pennsylvania. From that small beginning, the idea of a fair trade shop burgeoned and became 75 shops across the U.S. and 35 stores in Canada. Byler's first store was called Byler's Gift Shop, but in 1952, it became a nonprofit program of the Mennonite Central Committee called the Overseas Needlepoint and Crafts Project. In 1968, the name became SELFHELP Crafts, and the name changed again in 1996 to that of "Ten Thousand Villages."

The trip to Montreat, a place variously called "A Mecca of Presbyterians," "the narthex of heaven," and "where God vacations," was, for us, a visit to a center of hope and an encounter with serendipity in one of the world's "thinnest places."

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

No comments: