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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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And so it is with Smith Island.

 A half hour later it is “breezin’ up,” as the islanders say, and Edmund and I hunker down in his golf cart, a howling wind rattling vinyl windows. We careen past Ewell’s trim frame houses, then clear a wall of tall marsh grass. In an instant, the world turns to reeds, water and sky. At a crabber’s dock in Rhodes Point, we board Ronnie Corbin’s 40-foot workboat, the Patty Ann, its diesel engine already growling. Corbin takes Edmund to Tylerton on Sabbath Day because the pastor has such a tight schedule, and he can ride in the Patty Ann’s cabin, where his going-to-church suit won’t get messed up.

Edmund entered the ministry late in life, after 20 years as a computer programmer, and served at three small mainland churches until he was appointed to fill the opening at Smith Island. “I knew the minister here would be involved at a higher level of community activity,” he says, watching the boat’s wake as we thread the marsh creeks that stitch Tylerton to the rest of Smith Island. Day and night, his golf cart whirs up and down the road between Ewell and Rhodes Point. And the little skiff he uses to get to Tylerton during the week rarely sits idle for long. “A lot of this is just making the commitment. After all, we’re on an island. You’ve all got to work together.”

Pinched between Tyler Creek and Merlin Gut, Tylerton is an island itself, four dozen frame houses on narrow, shaded footpaths. It’s dollhouse cute, and just as fragile. I scramble out of the boat, scuffing Sunday shoes on a wooden piling, and notice a long rotting bulkhead that hugs the waterfront. It sports only inches of freeboard. “You should be here when there’s a nor’easter coming,” Edmund says. “The water covers the whole bulkhead.”

Smith Island faces many challenges: youth siphoned off by the mainland. The elderly lost to death or distant nursing homes. And crab harvests at an all-time low. But the Bay itself may prove to be the island’s ultimate undoing. Smith Island is eroding; more than 1,200 island acres have disappeared in the past century. Eventually, it may suffer the same fate as other Bay islands, which were once inhabited but have long since disappeared.

In this grim context, Edmund’s message seems apt. Up on the dais at Tylerton’s church, Pastor Rick wears an alb and stole, a departure from his typical coat and tie. He senses the congregation’s curiosity. “I don’t normally wear my alb unless we have a baptism, or some other special event,” he explains. “And today we do. This is a special service, for this is the day we commission our lay volunteers.”

I glance at the church bulletin. Inside is a listing of volunteer church positions—Sunday School superintendent, youth committee, financial secretary and more. “Apostle Paul had the idea in mind that everyone has gifts,” Pastor Rick explains. “We have different skills, different talents, that God has blessed us with.” Edmund reads, again, the day’s passage from 1 Corinthians. When he asks all the church volunteers to come forward, the floorboards grumble. For a moment I wonder if the service has concluded, for I’m left in the pews with only scattered adults and a few young people slouched in the back rows. More than half of the congregation has agreed to take on one leadership role or another. Pastor Rick is beaming.

It is noon by the time we reach Rhodes Point, and the congregation is already seated. As we hustle up the steps, my eyes are drawn to flowers on the fresh grave of Leon Marsh, the last of Rhodes Point’s builders of wooden boats. His was the third funeral service Edmund has led here. Another two residents recently moved to mainland nursing homes. “That’s 10 percent of the population, gone since I arrived,” Edmund told me. Its parts are many, I recalled. But not as many as before.

Pastor Rick is running out of gas. From the pulpit, he asks for a cup of water, and a young girl slips him a clear glass jar, full to overflowing. In Joshua Thomas’ day, colorful nicknames accompanied the most exuberant preachers, and they were a stern lot: “Son of Thunder” and “Devil Driver.” Edmund is different. “We all have gifts,” he tells his congregation. “I’m comfortable with preaching, but I think I am best with people. Out there with you.”

After this last service, Edmund and I walk a short distance to a house where wire crab pots take up much of the front yard. Sheila Bradshaw already has lunch on the table, and soon I’m into my third helping of crabs and howling over Pal’s rendition of Edmund winning 250 pounds of frozen bait at the recent waterman’s banquet—the only man on Smith Island with no use for it whatsoever. It’s not long before the conversation turns to the island’s rapidly receding shoreline.

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