Preacher on the Go

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

"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.”

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.

“I’ll tell you, I don’t worry about the erosion too much,” Pal Bradshaw says. He is a big man, with a quick smile beneath a salt-and-pepper mustache. He points out a window, across the creek toward a thin strip of marsh, beyond which the open Chesapeake rolls to the horizon. When it goes? “Won’t be nothing between us and the Bay,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But if you ain’t got young people and you ain’t got crabs, then the island’s gone anyways.”

One body, many parts.

Earlier, on the ride over to Rhodes Point in the golf cart, Edmund had stomped on the brakes, pulled off the road and photographed a heron. He told me that sometimes at night, on his walks around town, he passes the Ewell church and stops for a moment, thinking about his favorite stained-glass window there. It pictures a large fortress clinging to a spire of rock. Massive waves thunder into the cliffs, and foam nearly reaches the stronghold. “It’s called ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,’” he said, “and I think, ‘Wow...that’s Smith Island.’” Then he steered the golf cart back on the road, heading, as always, for high ground.

by T. Edward Nickens

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