By Sue Thompson
The television sitcom ‘Cheers’ ran for 11 seasons, earning 27 Emmy awards and ranking number 18 in the top 50 greatest TV shows of all time. Every week a core group of colorful characters made their way to their favorite local bar to commiserate. Perched on wooden stools, nursing a cold one, they shared their troubles, offered bad advice, traded a few good barbs and hoped for an epiphany. The little bar in Boston existed in a season of perpetual advent, expectant of something good that never quite arrived. Cheers fans everywhere fondly remember the words to the show’s theme song: “Sometimes you want to go – where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see – our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
I recently had the privilege of visiting a ‘Cheers’ of sorts, out on Harpers Ferry Road in Purcellville, Virginia. Unlike their Hollywood counterpart, there’s no bar where you can lose your troubles for a time in a cold one. Instead you’ll find a simple fieldstone church building hugging the road in quiet repose. Framed by sprays of wildflowers behind a wrought iron fence, with its cemetery nestled close beside, Christian Community Church at St. Paul’s is a place where everybody knows your name.
Linda Sutler was there cutting the grass on the day I visited. Linda was born nearby in Lovettsville. Her mother’s great uncles did the stonework on the church, and the Mt. Olivette Church in Lovettsville too. Her mom was the organist at Mt. Olivette for 30 years. Linda isn’t a member of St. Paul’s but she comes regularly to cut the grass and tend the little cemetery. She knows Pastor Roland England real well. He’s been there for her over the years as she struggled with the grief of losing her seven- year-old son to a drunk driver, and he’s there for her now in a fresh season of grief for her son Randy who died a few months ago. Linda feels loved at St. Paul’s. “There’s comfort in tending the grounds here,” she says.
The Reverend Roland England has pastured this little flock since1998. “I just minister to people where I find them. I help with dental work, keep people out of jail and just love on them. These are the kinds of things I like to do. Church isn’t just the members. It’s the larger community of families connected with the church, he says.
The Reverend explains that he doesn’t aspire to a big congregation. “I’ve always pastured a small church. I like to visit my people. If you have a big church you can’t do that. I’m able to share Christ’s love and that’s what matters,” says the Reverend. He works as a security guard full-time but ministering to others is his where his heart is. He’s already seen his 70th birthday come and go. “I plan to keep on doing what I’m doing, good Lord willing, for quite some time,” he says.
He excuses himself for a few minutes to meet with a family who have come to plan a funeral, leaving me in the cool of the stone sanctuary to take in the simple beauty of this humble building. St. Paul’s began to meet here in 2000. The building stood empty for 30 years prior. Reverend England and his congregation approached the Lutheran Synod with an offer and bought the building for $1.00. Carroll Crim and his wife Doris prayed for 10 years for a new church in the Purcellville area. “This church” Carroll said then, “is the answer to those prayers.” Prayer is a big part of the life at St. Paul’s. It’s in the very walls of the building.
I’m roused from the quiet of the sanctuary to join the Reverend next door in his office so he can introduce me to the couple he’s meeting with. There’s talk of Doris Crim’s coleslaw and other important ‘family’ business. Roots go deep in this little church. Relationships are cherished. Everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. I start to feel a bit like family myself, sitting among these dear folks as they share their joys and sorrows.
Seems there are about 50 people in the congregation, not including all the folks in the community who aren’t officially members but make up the ‘family’ that is St. Paul’s. The core group is in Lovettsville and the rest come from Maryland and West Virginia. For three nights in December their numbers swell to over 100 people for their special Christmas services. “We light the oil lamps. It’s a traditional service,” says Rev. England. “We’ll mark the end of Advent with hymns as we welcome the Christ Child. People are drawn to tradition. It helps anchor them.”
This little church seems to know a thing or two about anchoring the community. The first Sunday of every month is Communion at St. Paul’s followed by a pot-luck dinner after the service. And breakfast is served every Sunday morning before worship. Then there’s the annual Cruise-In – a time of food and fellowship when church families and the community come together. And their “Galilean Service” on the Clatterbuck Farm every spring, when they worship outdoors before enjoying a picnic lunch. Faith, food and fellowship they call it. “Feed the body and the soul,” says Reverend England. A person could get used to this.
Eventually it’s time for me to take leave of this little family. Linda waves good-bye as I follow the well-worm gravel path through the flowers to my car and head back to town, past the shops and the restaurants with their bars. Unlike the characters in the little Bar in Boston who were always moving through a season of advent, expectant of something good that never quite arrived, the folks at St. Paul’s know the One who has come. Linda Sutler knows him in the gentle embrace of the people of St. Paul’s as she tends the grounds. Doris Crim knows him as she lovingly adds a heaping bowl of her melt-in-your-mouth coleslaw to a table already groaning with food at the annual Cruise-In. Reverend England knows him as he tends his flock in the midst of the searing grief of death and the soaring joys of life. These folks at St. Paul’s know that advent is a place in the heart where life collides with faith every day, and that the expected one always comes.
Christian Community Church at St. Paul’s can be found at 12623 Harpers Ferry Road, Purcellville, Virginia. Sunday school and worship begin at 10:00 a.m. every Sunday.
Susan Thompson, a writer and photographer and a native of Virginia, lives in Purcellville with her husband Tim and a Schipperke named Rocket.