Clinging to Faith on Smith Island

Dec 26, 2002 10:02 AM EST

SMITH ISLAND, Md. -- The Rev. Rick Edmund delivered his Christmas message to the congregants, then pushed open the heavy door of the wooden church and headed outside into the salty breeze. He shook a few hands but couldn't linger. One down; two more to go.

Smith Island, a speck in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, has three Methodist churches but one preacher. Following a long tradition of Methodist circuit ministers, Edmund travels from church to church, riding a boat and a golf cart to reach the remote congregations.

This week he urged the men and women, most of them over 50 with skin leathered by sun and wind, to follow Mary's example and have faith in God even in difficult circumstances. It's a message that resonates in winter, when the crabbing that pays the bills is suspended and islanders bide their time until the work boats shove off again in spring.

But it has even greater meaning at this moment on this island, which is really just a dozen square miles of spongy marsh crisscrossed by channels and creeks. Smith Island is fading away.

"There not any children being born, and the old people's dying off," said Lester Tyler, 72, who still works on the water, scraping for soft-shell crabs.

At its height before World War I, the island population hit 850. By the 2000 Census, that number slipped to 364. Overfishing, disease and government regulation have dimmed the crabbing and oyster industry, while erosion and rising sea levels are eating away at the island and turning firm ground to marsh.

Most young residents leave for jobs at the prison or the hospital or schools on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Even older islanders are moving away, abandoning houses and leaving cars to rust. The last remaining school has 31 students; pre-kindergarten has just two children.

The pews grow emptier each year, but the churches continue to function in the island's three villages -- Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Since the island was founded by English farmers in 1657, the Methodist Church has been the focal point of community life.

With no local government, no bars, no movie theaters and little retail beyond some small groceries, the churches fill the void -- even paying the electric bills for the few street lights on the island. Disputes are resolved at meetings in the church basements. Pastor Rick, as the islanders call Edmund, is the de facto mayor.

"It's a pretty awesome responsibility," said Edmund, who likes to drive his white golf cart with the "Smile: Jesus Loves You" bumper sticker to a point on the flat island. From there, he can see the lights of all three villages when the sun sets. "I feel blessed to be here," he said.

Nearly everyone on the island is Methodist, having descended from three original families: Tyler, Evans and Bradshaw. Many islanders share a certain resemblance -- green or blue eyes, brown hair, small features set in round faces. They know each other's business and lives: who fell down and hurt a leg, who's having trouble making payments on a boat, whose daughter is moving off the island.

One out of five island residents lives below the poverty line. No one holds a graduate or professional degree, and just 7 percent graduated from college. Most men are watermen, rising at 4 a.m. to pull crabs from the bay. The women pick crab meat and earn any extra money they can by baking cakes or working the register at the grocery.

Although satellite dishes and the Internet have helped connect Smith Island to the rest of the world, the island is so remote -- reached from the mainland by a 45-minute boat ride across the 10 miles of choppy Tangier Sound -- that natives maintain a distinct dialect that mixes a Southern drawl with a British cockney accent. The word "brown," for instance, sounds like "brine."

Every Sunday, Edmund presides over the service at Ewell, then either takes a scow provided by the church or hitches a ride in a workboat to the next service in Tylerton, before climbing back in the boat and riding to Rhodes Point for the final service. He gives the same sermon three times.

He rubs his hands with sanitizing lotion on each leg of his circuit. "With all the handshaking, it helps to keep me from getting sick," said Edmund, who lives in the gray parsonage next to the church in Ewell, the biggest village.

During the week, he'll drive his golf cart or 1974 Volkswagen Bug to events at the Rhodes Point church or take his 14-foot scow, The Methodist, to church events in Tylerton.

Edmund delights in knowing all his congregants, their life stories and family histories. The Ohio native became a minister seven years ago, after 20 years in the computer industry.

At 54, he says the ministry answers his need to help people and serve God. The work is magnified on Smith Island because he is immersed in the lives of the congregants. "I could never be a minister of a big congregation, where you're more like a chief executive," Edmund said. "I'm more of a person-to-person type. Here, you're with folks all the time."

The downside is his love life, he said. "It's not a good idea to date people in the congregation," said Edmund, who divorced 18 years ago and is resigned for now to living alone with his yellow Labrador, Maggie. "It takes a special person to be a minister's wife here."

The women on the island, during their annual ladies-only Christmas party, spoofed Edmund's predicament by putting on a skit that featured Pastor Rick on the Dating Game. "Poor man -- if he wanted to take someone on a date, there's nowhere to take her, and if they went to the mainland, everyone would know because they'd see them on the boat," said Sharon Bruce, who grills hamburgers and bakes frozen pizza at Ruke's, the little store in Ewell, and also runs the island's only motel.

The three churches have always shared a minister, said Jennings Evans, 72, a retired waterman who acts as the local historian. Merging them has never been discussed, partly because Tylerton is reachable only by boat and it would be difficult for elderly residents to clamber in and out of boats every time they go to church.

And they go to church a lot -- not just on Sunday mornings but for midweek meetings and Saturday night dinners cooked by the men that feature Smith Island cake, a 12-layer confection baked by the women.

Beyond convenience, each village wants its own church as physical evidence of community.

"Most people give to the church whether they go or not," Evans said. "Don't think they could face the fact that they don't have a church rising above the town."

The smallest congregation is in Rhodes Point, connected by two miles of paved road and bridge to the largest town, Ewell. Of the three villages, Rhodes Point is the most depressed. In the last few years, it lost its restaurant and all its stores as well as its post office. Empty houses decay along its only road, which runs parallel to its channel.

On the Sunday before Christmas, 12 people prayed inside the church in Rhodes Point. Outside, more than 100 are buried in its expanding cemetery. Most of the churchgoers were elderly women, widows with hunched backs and graying hair. The pulpit, organ and front of the church were flooded with red poinsettias donated by church members honoring loved ones who have passed away.

It would be logical to merge the Rhodes Point church with the Ewell church, since they're so close together and connected by a paved road. But the congregants at the smaller church cling to it like a lifeboat in the bay.

"This is our community, and the people who built this church, they mean a lot to us," said Marlene Marsh, a 60-year-old widow who lives in a trailer a few doors down from the church. The church survives by throwing a homecoming celebration in the fall, where it collects thousands of dollars from people who once lived in Rhodes Point and come back to visit.

Since Edmund came to Smith Island a little over two years ago, he's counted five births and 12 deaths. Against a backdrop of disintegration, he tries to emphasize a message of new life and hope, especially at Christmas. The minister hooked up a public address system to the Ewell church and is broadcasting Bing Crosby Christmas standards this week. "White Christmas" can be heard throughout the village and its harbor.

For those who stay on Smith Island, faith is essential, said Ronnie Corbin, 45, the ruddy-faced son and grandson of watermen who dropped out of school after eighth grade to work on the water. "Everybody has faith in God, that he'll provide crabs and oysters that we depend on so much. That's what's really holding Smith Island together now. The faith."

Edmund wants a Somerset County grant to launch a pottery-making business for island residents. He also dreams about erecting a boardwalk in the marshland between Ewell and Rhodes Point as a way to promote ecotourism. First he'd have to clean up the open-air dump where residents discard and burn their trash.

Smith Island and others in the Chesapeake Bay are losing land quickly, due to rising sea levels along the Atlantic coast. A new study by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore will be gone in 50 years -- earth converted to marsh.

Blackwater is roughly the same elevation and the same kind of land as Smith Island; large tracts of Smith are already soggy and uninhabitable.

The usual tenure of a minister on Smith Island is five years. Edmund hopes to stay 10 years until his retirement. "I've got some projects to see through," he said, standing on the dock in Ewell. "Hopefully, I won't be the last minister here."

By Albert H. Lee
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