Religion News: December 2023

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Beloved Holiday Display to Benefit Neighbors in Need

A number of railroad lines will roll around in Old Trail this month, spreading Christmas cheer and good will during the darkest nights of the year. Last year’s holiday railroad display, set up in Old Trail’s Addle Hill pocket park, attracted hundreds of happy onlookers, both railroad buffs and curious neighbors, with a considerable number of viewers also coming from afar. Roger Hodskins, the architect, builder, and chief engineer of the holiday project, said the success inspired a number of neighbors and friends to pitch in to help this year with everything from construction to crowd management, and he’s grateful for that.

This year’s display will have benefits beyond the joyful nostalgia attached to trains at Christmas time: There will be a bin for those who wish to donate full-size household and personal care products to the Crozet Cares Closet, which in turn makes them available to those in need. The service began in July, with the pickup point at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on the first Saturday of every month. It’s a joint effort of area churches through the Crozet Region Interfaith Outreach Council, which meets regularly to discuss community needs that go unmet.

Roger Hodskins will set up the Christmas railroad every evening between Dec. 16 and Dec. 23. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Hodskins was touched when last year’s visitors asked if they could make a contribution to his expenses, which he declined, as his intention was simply for his railroad village to be a gift to the people of Crozet.

This year, he decided to add the optional charitable element to the seasonal display, and his top choice was the Closet. To make sure they will be current on what’s in low supply, holiday railroad visitors can find an up-to-date list of most-needed products on the Crozet Cares Closet’s Facebook, Instagram, and Nextdoor social media pages.

Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Those who saw the trains last year will find some surprises. The trains, which will run this year from Saturday, December 16 through Saturday, December 23, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., will wind around some landmarks that will positively identify the Christmas village as Crozet. The businesses and buildings chosen will be a surprise, Hodskins said. “Suffice it to say that several Crozet-specific and recognizable downtown establishments have been added this year. I hope to add more each season.” There will be additional trains and changes in the layout to keep the project interesting for those who came last year. 

Because of the expected crowds, limited parking in the surrounding neighborhood, and concern for pedestrian safety, those railroad visitors who are able are asked to park in one of the Old Trail Village Center lots, an easy, four-minute walk away from the Addle Hill park along the Ashlar Avenue sidewalks.

It’s a cold, busy, gloomy time of year for standing outside and answering questions night after night, but Hodskins looks forward to doing it all again. “Since last season,” he said, “I have had so many people approach me (some that I don’t know) and ask, ‘Are you going to do the trains again this year?’”  

A long-time railroad buff, Hodskins said he enjoyed meeting so many people, hearing their stories about past holiday seasons and the train around the Christmas tree, or how their  parents worked for a railroad.

“It seemed to bring real joy to so many people,” he said.  “And let’s face it, what is Christmas without trains?”

Author Tells Story of Beloved Song

“It became the hymn we sing together at times of inconsolable loss,” said Bruce Hindmarsh. He was speaking about “Amazing Grace,” written by John Newton more than 250 years ago. Hindmarsh, with coauthor Craig Berlase, wrote a book about the man and the song, called Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton and the Surprising Story Behind His Song.

Author Bruce Hindmarsh, sponsored by Holy Cross Anglican Church, talked about his new book at Crozet Baptist Church in early November.

He spoke about the song, its author, and what it has come to mean in our culture: a plea for salvation, a hymn of gratitude for salvation, a song of desperate sorrow, begging for healing and grace. Hindmarsh’s talk was sponsored by Holy Cross Anglican Church and delivered at Crozet Baptist Church in early November. 

Later, in an interview, Hindmarsh said his interest began when he wrote his doctoral thesis at Oxford University about the song. He’s now a Professor of Spiritual Theology and the History of Christianity at Regent College in Vancouver. He said Newton had a difficult life. He was forced to enlist in the Royal Navy as a young man, later becoming an investor in the slave trade and the captain of slave ships. At some point he was captured and enslaved himself in Sierra Leone. Newton was hypocritical to an extent hard for us to understand, Hindmarsh said, “He’d be in his cabin, writing tender letters to his wife and reading his Bible, while presiding over unspeakable cruelty.”

In many ways, he was like others of his time and today who excuse their actions because they benefit from them financially and see them widely practiced by others. “Newton explained it this way, although he did not excuse it: he said, ‘Custom, example, and interest had blinded my eyes,’” Hindmarsh said.

Newton left the slave trade, embraced Christianity and studied for the priesthood, serving as a parish priest in Buckinghamshire for 20 years. 

After his change of heart, Newton became a fierce abolitionist. Acknowledging his horrible past, he wrote the words for “Amazing Grace,” putting forward the idea that even the cruelest and most flawed among us can find salvation. Hindmarsh compared him to the Bible’s King David, a murderer and adulterer who wrote beautiful psalms and hoped to find forgiveness.

Newton wrote only the words to the hymn, Hindmarsh said, but they were popular enough to reach the new world, and were paired with the score of “New Britain,” a traditional melody, many years after Newton died. 

Then it became an American story, Hindmarsh said. The hymn was adopted by Black gospel singers and southern Appalachian shape note singers, but when Mahalia Jackson sang it on the radio in 1948, people really saw its awesome power. It became the anthem for those working for civil rights, or against the war in Vietnam, or outside of coal mines with people trapped inside, or when people lost children in a school shooting. 

“Whenever something unspeakable happens, people gather and hold hands and sing,” Hindmarsh said. He’s working with an independent production company to make a documentary based on his book. In one of his favorite scenes in the documentary, the Kingdom Choir––the British gospel choir based in London that sang “Stand by Me” at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle––sing the hymn under the pulpit, Hindmarsh said. “It conveys such joy.”

He expects the documentary to be released next year.  

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