The Church on the Hill – Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, The Fiction Pool, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Short Fiction.

The Church on the Hill

A bell tolls the hours. It carries for blocks in the tree-lined streets. At six o’clock, a carillon plays a hymn, an old favourite or one appropriate to the season. I trace the sound to its source and find a little brick tower. Three bells hang motionless. The ringing comes from a loudspeaker mounted on the roof of Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church.

In the Belmont neighbourhood, Belmont Baptist Church is more central, Sojourners Church of Christ is livelier, and both attract larger numbers. But this one is the oldest. Perched on a hill, it preserves the past with dignity.

The Methodists organized in Charlottesville, Virginia as early as 1834. Toward the end of the century, they grew to about six hundred members, as the city itself expanded. In 1897, they built a small frame chapel at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Avon Street, and about one hundred thirty members hived off. A booklet published on the centennial in 1997 lists all the charter members by name.

The Belmont Chapel grew, and in 1909 they built a Gothic brick church with stained glass windows. They outgrew that, and in 1948 they built a red brick barn beside it. Ten years later, they replaced the old chapel with a two-story Education Wing, also in red brick. At the same time, they dressed up the sanctuary with a Gothic brick arcade and crenellations, added a chancel with a pipe organ, and turned all the pews ninety degrees to face the new chancel. The sanctuary seats three hundred fifty. “In 1959,” the booklet says, “membership was approximately 1,150.”

The years around 1960 were the high point for Christian churches in the United States. Was there a decline in religious fervour, or do the numbers reflect population shifts in age, education, ethnicity, and income? Today, a Sunday service at Hinton Avenue United Methodist attracts up to eighty people, few of whom live in the neighbourhood. Their parents did, and they may own property here, but they live scattered around town and outside. They drive to church and to evening functions like choir practice and the Methodist Men, who meet once a month. An asphalt parking lot replaced the parsonage after the 1960s.

Rev. Robert Lewis is the pastor. With reddish hair and beard, in his thirties, the son of a Methodist minister in Richmond, he was educated at Randolph-Macon College and Duke Divinity School. He met his wife Rachel in college, and they married on graduation in 1997. They went to serve the Methodists in Sheffield, England in 2003 for a year, and they stayed for nine. Both were ordained in England. After they returned to Virginia, they “transferred home” to the Virginia Conference.

Lewis notes national differences in Methodism. “The British resist change even more than we do.” When he arrived, Hinton Avenue United Methodist suffered from rifts and hurt feelings. He undertook to heal them, and the congregation stabilized.

Lewis sings with the choir, and he preaches from notes. His sermons stick to Bible readings for that day, and they often cite Greek and Hebrew words. For all that, Sunday service is relaxed and traditional. The congregation is mostly older and white, with a handful of children. They greet each other with enthusiasm, such that Lewis has to call them back to order. And they sing with gusto. They field a choir of twelve voices and a handbell choir. Outreach includes a musical group called the Hintonaires, who visit retirement homes once a week.

The classrooms in the Education Wing of 1958 are deserted but not empty. Some are full of child-sized furniture. Some are storage for social programs like the Food Pantry and the Clothes Closet. Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Narcotics Anonymous sometimes meet here. The church office at one end is bathed in sunlight, with a bed of flowers under the windows.

A soup kitchen operates one day a week. It, Boy Scout Troop 37, and events like the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper meet under the sanctuary in the Fellowship Hall, reached by passages and stairs that resemble a print by M. C. Escher, or the Carceri of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Sadly, the public never sees this subterranean world, with its dark alcoves, brass inscriptions, and Baroque splendour of water-stained ceilings. At the end of a row of fluorescent lights, a small proscenium stage with a tattered red curtain waits in gloomy silence.

At Easter, in the sanctuary above, white lilies smother the communion rail. Pastor Lewis speaks briefly, then yields to a play written by member Rusty Renick. About twenty of the congregation act in costume, while the rest watch. All sit together in the pews.

In the play, two reporters from Dateline News cover recent events in Jerusalem, where a Jewish dissident has been executed. They interview people on the street—a righteous Pharisee, Mary Magdalene, a woman whose brother Lazarus rose from the dead, and another woman named Mary. When asked if she knew the man Jesus, this Mary shrieks: “He was my son!” Pontius Pilate, played by Bob Braden, the Lay Leader, wears a toga and a wreath on his head. He firmly states the case for law and order. A young man dressed as a Roman soldier, in a red cloak and a wobbly helmet, sits in the pew ahead of me. A script is taped inside his shield, with lines highlighted in yellow.

Will this spectacle be repeated, like the Oberammergau Passion Play? Will it attract tourists? The Belmont Bash, an annual street party, takes place two blocks away on Hinton Avenue, where restaurants and businesses cluster. It features barbecue, craft beer, and live music. In spring, anything is possible.

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