About five years ago, I traveled to rural Iowa to report on a 156-year-old church surrounded by corn and soybean fields and a cemetery where generations of deceased members rest in peace.
The news angle was that the tiny congregation was working hard to survive despite immense challenges facing it and similar houses of worship.
As part of the same "Rural Redemption" project, I spent a Sunday with a 200-year-old assembly in the farming and coal-mining country of southeastern Ohio.
I thought those churches had long histories!
But Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer recently wrote about an Episcopal congregation in rural Virginia that is marking 400 years — 400 years! — in 2018.
The Post's headline pretty much nails it:
This 400-year-old church is older than almost any institution in America
This won't be a long post because my basic message is simple: This is an interesting, well-reported story, and I'd urge you to read it.
What did I like about it? I'll quickly mention three things.
But first, let's set the scene with the compelling lede:
BURROWSVILLE, Va. — Long before American independence, before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth Rock, there was Martin’s Brandon Church.
And now, the Rev. Eve Butler-Gee looks at her flock at the same Martin’s Brandon Episcopal Church in amazement. “They’re faithful. Every single one of them is engaged and active,” she said. But then again, it’s no wonder: “They’ve been doing this for 400 years, and they’re not about to stop now.”
The church, one of the oldest in the United States that still operates, celebrates its 400th birthday this year. And for many families in the rural congregation, the pink-colored house of worship near the James River has been part of their family stories for a very large portion of that time.
“They’ve been doing this for 400 years, and they’re not about to stop now.” What a terrific quote! But don't count that as one of my three things. That's a bonus compliment. (Smile.)
Here are my official three things I liked:
1. The setting: For many journalists, stories in rural areas are harder to uncover and harder to get to, so headlines from urban and suburban areas often dominate news pages. Kudos to Zauzmer and the Post for venturing out to the country.
2. The details: I was really enjoying the story already, but when Zauzmer felt compelled to mention the lunch menu, she kicked it up a notch. And by the way, I'm now hungry:
Churchgoers chatting at the after-services lunch — as they ate fried and barbecued chicken, green beans and mac ‘n’ cheese, lemonade and sweet tea, and plate after plate of desserts — reeled off the family names of grandfathers and great-grandmothers, spinning a web of relationships that soon seemed to entwine almost everyone in the room.
3. The intrigue: It turns out that the church's current pastor discovered a surprising connection to one of its earlier pastors. Zauzmer does a nice job of conveying this juicy background. Warning: If you don't like spoiler alerts, don't read the following blockquote:
The minister who helped revive the congregation, and brought it to the point in 1856 that it could build a proud, pink-hued Tuscan-style building with a soaring bell tower, the building Martin’s Brandon still meets in today — was the Rev. Charles Minnigerode.
Minnigerode was a memorable character whose life story was the subject of a presentation during the church service at Martin’s Brandon this week. And in a twist of fate that shocked the new minister in the 21st century, it turned out that Minnigerode is Butler-Gee’s great-great-grandfather.
Anyway, I promised a short post, so I better stop typing.
But before I sign off, one more bit of intrigue: The pastor has a cousin whose name you may recognize. Interesting, huh?