Religion News: July 2023

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For years, Mt. Moriah’s long-time trustee Jim Abell has overseen the adjoining cemetery. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

People of Mt. Moriah Preserve Historic Church and Grounds

With perseverance, overwhelming congregational support, a little luck and a lot of work, the people of historic Mt. Moriah church in White Hall have bought their church, grounds, cemetery and parsonage back from the United Methodist Conference. There were a number of reasons for their decision to leave the conference they joined in its earliest form 235 years ago, but church leaders want to make it clear that exclusion of any group of people from the ministry or congregation was not one of them.

Trustees Jim Abell, left, A.J. Dalton, and other dedicated members worked to save historic Mt. Moriah Church. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

It’s no secret that the United Methodist Church and other Christian religions are coping with schisms. In a few days in early June, 264 congregations in Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and North Georgia split from the United Methodist Church because of concerns about LGBTQ+ ministers. In mid-June, two churches, including California’s huge Saddleback Church, were expelled (the Baptist term is “disfellowshipped”) from the Southern Baptist Conference for allowing female pastors.

“That’s not us,” said Helen Maupin, a Mt. Moriah trustee. She’s married to Mike Maupin, whose family founded the church, which was first called Maupin’s Meeting House and was located across the river from the present church. “We chose a different path than most of the churches involved in the schism.” The UMC offers a protocol for disaffiliating over internal conflicts by way of the new Global Methodist Church.

The loved ones of many White Hall residents are buried in the historic cemetery behind Mt. Moriah Church. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Long-time church member and trustee Jim Abell outlined some of reasons why the church chose a different, more complicated and burdensome procedure of independently purchasing their mortgage back from the Conference. “To me, joining the Global Methodist Church would be like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Most important to him––and to the other church leaders––was the preservation of the church and grounds. For years, Abell has overseen the cemetery that adjoins the church. It has a relationship with the church: many former members are buried there, but although it’s a separate entity that’s governed by secular regulations, it’s covered by the same insurance policy as the church. An undated history published in the Charlottesville Daily Progress speculated that the cemetery might contain the graves of Revolutionary War veterans, as well as the many known veterans of the Civil War and World Wars I and II.

For several years, Mt. Moriah’s leaders had been concerned about the church’s survival. For reasons of efficiency, the United Methodist Church––or any church with authority over its member churches––is able to shutter churches with congregations that dwindle to less than a minimum number of attendees, sending them to another church. A couple of warnings from former ministers added to their worries. 

Trustees Jim Abell and A.J. Dalton are part of a dedicated group that worked for the survival of historic Mt. Moriah Church. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

“One of them told me he’d been sent here to close down the church,” Abell said. As it turned out, that minister befriended the congregation and left without fulfilling his mandate. Another former minister confirmed that the church had been on the closure list. The frequent coming and going of ministers was another reason for the growing dissatisfaction. “A rural church is very different from a city church,” Abell said. “We had no say about our ministers.” Some did not understand the needs of a small, close-knit community. Or the congregation would receive ministers they really liked, only to have them taken away. “People asked us why we were so hard on our ministers,” Maupin said, “but we actually had nothing to do with them coming and going.”

The original Maupin’s Meeting House moved across the Moorman River in 1834, when several acres of the Maupin farm were deeded for that purpose. According to the history of the church, at first local church members planned their own services and ministered to those who needed help, with the occasional help of a traveling minister. The building has been altered, repaired and improved many times since the first baptisms held there in 1858. It was a hard choice for them––as members of the first bastion of Methodism in Albemarle County––to move away from the denomination, but their affection for their fellow members, friends and neighbors, guided them. “These are families who have donated a lot of money and time to the church over the centuries,” Maupin said. “They’re not going to just wake up one morning, walk away and join another church.”

There’s no question that the church has been a central part of community life, said A.J. Dalton, chairman of the trustees. “People who are not members attend on religious holidays, and when someone in the community needs anything, we try to provide what we can, whether or not they belong to Mt. Moriah.” 

It certainly was a big part of his life, starting as a young man, he said, when the church and particularly the mentorship of Jim Abell were very important to him. Abell has his own story: faced with the potentially fatal illness of his young wife, he prayed about his connection with Mt. Moriah and vowed to become more active in serving the church. In the end, Connie Abell lived 40 years longer than predicted, and Abell has fulfilled his promise many times over.

Mt. Moriah Church has been a gathering place for the community for more than 200 years. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

For the past few months, as they struggled to understand how to gain control of the buildings and property, serving the church has been one huge job. Dalton learned the congregation actually had very little legal right to the buildings and lands so dear to the community. “This is despite all the money we’d sent in over the years,” he said, “Plus our total support of the ministers they sent us.” Complying with the procedures for disaffiliation was a long process: Dalton has a stack of forms, legal procedures, inspections and requirements that fill a binder as thick as an old-fashioned phone book from a mid-sized city.

One of the most arduous requirements was to make sure they had an accurate, updated list of members so they could hold a valid and binding vote on whether to leave. Abell and Dalton credit Jackie Sandridge and Betty Dickerson with the tedious work of updating every membership record. Sandridge has lived in the community for years and, as a certified lay leader and delegate to the UMC Conference, she had a bit of inside knowledge that was helpful. Even more helpful was her natural tenacity. The mother of five children, she worked for many years as an OR nurse, often taking night shifts to avoid childcare fees. “I knew we’d have to dot every i and cross every t, or our vote would be discredited,” she said.

She and Dickerson met every afternoon in an upstairs room at the church. They sent letters to members they hadn’t seen for a while, updated phone numbers, pored through old records, crossed off those who were deceased, and ultimately tracked down and verified as many Mt. Moriah members as they possibly could. 

This was not overkill. When it came time to cast the ballots, the vote was monitored as closely as any high-stakes election. Representatives from the UMC were on hand to make sure only bona fide members voted, and they verified the huge (96%) majority in favor of leaving. In the end, the UMC allowed the church to buy back the properties at a reasonable cost. 

With the future of the Mt. Moriah assured, church leaders are still unsure of what’s ahead. The church is now non-denominational, but the order of services will seem familiar to Methodists and other religions that follow a liturgical calendar. Sandridge has been helping the interim minister, Tammy James, a community member and former Martha Jefferson Hospital chaplain, plan services. On occasion they have a guest preacher, and in a few weeks they’ll begin searching for a permanent minister, one who fits their needs, will stay long enough to provide continuity for the church’s children, and who is down to earth, like the congregation. This month, there will be a vacation Bible school that includes home-cooked meals for the children. Like all churches these days, they seek younger people and families to join the long-term members, and they plan to expand their youth program.

“Just to give you some idea of what the congregation is like, I showed up last Sunday in dirty jeans and wellingtons from working with the cows, and felt completely comfortable,” Maupin said. “So many of us are farmers.”

Newcomers will feel comfortable, too, promise the trustees. “If you come to a service, you’ll leave with at least three new friends,” Maupin promised. “We don’t care who you are,” Dalton said. “Everyone is welcome.”

Mountain Light Retreat Celebrates Gratitude, Joy, Poetry

Mountain Light Retreat’s program for poets coincides with the Sturgeon super moon on Tuesday, August 1. The program will be from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and owner Debbie Scott will host the day celebrating gratitude and the gift of joy. Local poet Ray Griffin will facilitate the sessions. The event includes a Celtic feast, time for walking the labyrinth, sharing poetry, writing a group poem, free writing, and guided meditation.

Local spiritual and nature writer and teacher Louise Mitchell will lead the meditation and writing session. She’s an author of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. “The meditation will take participants deeper into self-discovery and inspiration for writing,” Mitchell said. She has written and led meditations and spiritual workshops since 1992. Scott advises participants to bring their muses, totems and a short original poem, and to dress comfortably for the weather and relaxation. Programs at Mountain Light Retreat offer contemplative experiences that support spiritual growth. Scott anticipates that gathering contemplatives will add beautiful energy to an already spiritual space graced with views that inspire and invite a poetic response.

Those interested in attending can email [email protected], or find out more by visiting moutainlightretreatva.com. 

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