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Preacher on the Go

Tiny Smith Island has three churches but only one pastor, who gets around by boat and Golf Cart

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"He just got that skiff," Sheila Bradshaw tells me, “and he’s a-worryin’ us to death.” It is Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting at the Bradshaw kitchen table in tiny Rhodes Point, on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Within reach is a king’s feast: a small mountain of fried soft-shell crabs, bowls filled with collard greens and corn pudding, and an eight-layer banana cake. Sheila Bradshaw’s husband, “Pal,” is here, and so is Richard Edmund, the fellow who knits Sheila’s brow each time he motors his small boat past her house and then doesn’t come back when she thinks he should. “It gets dark, and we know he’s out there somewhere,” she says, reprimand and affection in her voice, “so we get on the VHF radio. ‘Hey, Preacher-man, where are you?’”

Edmund glances over at me and grins. He is 52 years old, slight and trim, with graying temples and an impish, unlined face. He’s been posted on Smith Island just 11 months. But I know what he’s thinking. Never before has Rick Edmund been more aware of where he is.

Each Sunday morning, Edmund, a minister for the United Methodist Church, travels by golf cart and crab boat, in rain, shine or nor’easter, across Smith Island’s 8,000 acres of marsh and tidal creek. One by one, he leads worship services at three small churches in the trio of remote hamlets that hang on to the island’s meager dry ground: Ewell, the largest community, and the terminus of the ferryboat from Crisfield, Maryland, 12 miles distant; Rhodes Point, connected to Ewell by a ribbon of blacktop strung across vast salt marsh; and tiny Tylerton, accessible only by boat.

In 1910, some 800 souls lived on Smith Island. Today, there are perhaps 350, and nearly every island family is involved in an industry handed down through the ages: crabbing. Along the marsh creeks that lace the island like a doily, wire crab pots tower in neat stacks two stories high. Scores of small wooden outbuildings called crab shanties teeter over the towns’ waterfronts, linked together by long piers covered with waist-high basins where molting crabs are held while they shed their shells.

Although Smith Island is well-publicized as a day-trip destination, few visitors from the mainland get more than a cursory glimpse. “So, you found us,” Rick Edmund had said a few days earlier as I stepped off the ferryboat. But I hadn’t, not yet. All I knew was where to start looking, for there are two things that all Smith Islanders have in common: blue crabs and Pastor Rick. Only one of them would let me tag along.

At 8:30 on Sunday morning, I slip into a back pew at the church in Ewell. It has a white steeple and stained-glass windows. The half hour before each Sunday morning service is called testimony, or class meeting. A heavyset man with an earnest smile pads up and down the aisles. He asks if there are concerns in the hearts of the congregation, or recent moments when the Almighty moved in their lives. He shuffles crab-wise along the pews to face each person who takes to his or her feet.

 

I want to stand up and praise God this morning...
I want to stand up and thank the Lord this morning...
Ever’body here knows how worried I am about my arthritis. I need your prayers.

In the early 19th century, a fiery Methodist preacher named Joshua Thomas made landfall here in his 20-foot log sailing canoe. Thomas’ exhortations prompted women to leap from windows, as one account recalls, convinced that Satan himself was in hot pursuit. Methodism’s emphasis on God’s availability to common folk appealed to the Chesapeake’s farmers and fishermen and is still an anchor for many Smith Islanders today.

This morning, Pastor Rick is preaching on 1 Corinthians 12, a New Testament passage that speaks of diversity and unity within a community of believers. “What a beautiful illustration the apostle Paul gives us here,” he says to the congregation at Ewell. It’s a short sermon, but he’ll deliver it three times. He reads from the Bible: “The body is a unit. Though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.”

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