The Shenandoah Sutra
Roll down your window, though, and it’s hard to stay reverent for long. The air is thick with the stench of methane and manure. Dairy cows wander the hills and gullies, most in black clusters of 20 or more, others as lonely dots beside far-off fence posts, keeping their distance like they’re brooding over a quarrel. Or maybe they just need to clear their big noses of community’s inevitable reek.
Which is more or less what we’re looking for. We drove out this way in search of the remains of a failed 80s-era commune organized around “biodynamic gardening,” which combined cutting-edge agricultural techniques with astrology to grow organic produce and some of the prettiest flowers around. But when a commune member prophesied that their water supply would be contaminated, it was only a matter of time before the roses wilted, the carrots started tasting funny, and the prophet herself took off to North Dakota. Communing can be a dangerous business.
The churches and the battlefields along this road are mirror images, each showing that the stakes of war and of worship aren’t so different: unity; authority; control. The valley’s cannon-scarred austerity and the Mennonite distrust of adornment join here to paint a landscape portrait of American simplicity. The fields are pale yellow and so is the stained glass — and that’s about as decorated as things get.
We don’t find any remnants of the vanished commune, but up the road a ways from the mansion that once housed it, a white clapboard chapel stands on a hill covered with gravestones. They butt up against a small parking lot like reserved-space markers, etched with long names formed of common words made strange by their juxtaposition: Fearnow, Lineweaver, Hovermale.
We park in front of a stone marked “Dawson”. Here lies Ward M. Jr., 1918-1985; Daughter Carol V., 1950-1997; and Infant Son, 1948. Marjorie J. Dawson’s name also appears with only one date, but next to it is a blank spot on the granite: 1927- ____. Just four inches of uncarved stone, but it’s also a beginning awaiting an end; an emptiness that everyday asks when?
Inside the Church of the Brethren, an old man is fixing the door to the sanctuary. He has wedged a black-handled screwdriver between the hinge and the doorframe, prying metal from wood rather than loosening the screws. A tall man in a corduroy cap and amber tinted glasses, he has the look of someone who would not be doing this without a good reason. He barely looks up when we walk in, only glances and harrumphs, “So what are you selling?”
“Oh, we’re not selling anything,” Jeff laughs, then explains, “we’re driving around the country looking at churches.” As if this makes perfect sense.
“Well I can’t tell you nothing about this one,” the man says. “I only been coming here since I was six years old — seventy-three now, sure am.” His name is Robert K. Ritchie, “K” he says, because there a lot of Robert Ritchies in the valley.
Robert K. steps away from his work, leaving the screwdriver jutting out of the doorjamb. His cheeks are drawn and spotted but so smooth it’s hard to imagine he’s ever missed a day of shaving. His fingers are rough as sackcloth when he offers his hand.
“Place change much since you were young?” I ask.
He replies as if the answer is obvious.
“Well right there where you’re standing, that vestibule, built that in 1940. And over here…” He walks quickly along the back row of pews, stopping at a roll of maroon carpet on the bare wood floor. “Right here we knocked down the wall couple weeks back. Needed more space, we thought. Suppose we’ll put the carpet there down next few days, soon as the doors get right.”
Renovations were not quite what I had in mind. But the story of a place, even a sacred place, is nothing more than the story of how it came to be as it is. Walls, doors, carpet, wood — what else is there to a church?
Robert K. pushes open a door at the rear of the chapel. “Over back here we took out the exterior wall, got a backhoe to dig for the foundation, then built it all ground up. Have the potpie suppers in here now. Told us it would be $100,000 but maybe get it down to 80 if we had enough help from church members doing the building. Got it down round 72 in the end.”
“Redone all this too, couple years back. New kitchen fixtures, metal counters, new tile. But this in here…” He keeps moving, room to room. It’s hard to keep up. “This is the old kitchen and I tell you the ladies still like this more. They say it’s the old stove they like. I say it’s just they like to rub shoulders while they cook.”
“Oh but look in here — something I want you boys to see back here.” Robert K. leads us back into a wood paneled corridor like he’s taking us to the holy of holies. “Come on back here, come on.”
Suddenly we’re all standing together in an old bathroom, about four feet by five. “Look down here.” He bends down beside the toilet bowl and flicks a switch in the wall. “Don’t use it much these days but I put this in here so the water in the toilet won’t freeze. Take a look how close that bowl is to the wall.” We look down toward where he’s pointing. “No, no. Go on and have a look at that.”
I stoop, put my cheek to the heater and look. The space is about as wide as my head. If I look any closer I’m sure I’ll get stuck.
“That’s sure close.”
“Sure, huh,” Robert K. says. “Never much cared for that much.”
We stand still beside the toilet and say nothing for a moment, the three of us staring down at the bowl. Then he’s off again, heading back toward the chapel.
“We got the new commodes now, course. Decided we needed a couple more, you know, closer to the chapel, cleaned up and modern.” He opens a door to his right and to his left. “Men’s is here, this here is the ladies’.” The bathrooms are bright and immaculate, identical except for a lilac print bath mat placed in front of the ladies’ room sink. Robert K. doesn’t mention this small touch, but lets his eyes linger an instant on the floor. “So that’s real nice,” he says.
Even the smallest places can be read as scripture. What is the Gospel of the Church of the Brethren’s lavender bath mat? The Revelation of Robert K. Ritchie’s toilet heater? In a place as dangerous as community, we do what we can to feel safe.
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.