- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

EWELL, Md. — On an island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay — unreachable by car, pager or cell phone — there’s nothing to take away from the praying.

Worshippers do tap their feet along with the Southern gospel performers, and they murmur “Amen” when the gentle preaching pauses. But they are surrounded by solitude here on Smith Island.

Every summer for 116 years, during a steamy week of July, churchgoers have walked from their island homes or caught a boat “over home” to Smith Island to attend Camp Meeting.

It started out as a way for Methodists to convert their neighbors, but it has evolved over the past century as a homecoming for old crabbers and the families who moved away to find work or a less-isolated lifestyle.

“I live in Easton, but I’m a Smith Islander. I’ve only lived on the mainland 20 years,” said Dixie Larrimore, 64. She describes herself the way many islanders do, in an attempt to explain the strong pull to the marshy land: “I have mud between my toes.”

Weeklong Camp Meetings are a tradition long held in several parts of the country, especially the mid-Atlantic region. The faithful of several religions hold the retreats, but Methodists host the most well-known ones, including those in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

But on Smith Island, it takes a special commitment for nonresidents to attend. First, there’s the boat trip — 12 miles from the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. Then, there’s the overnight stay — usually at a relative’s house or one of two small inns.

Sometimes a boat motor hums, and sometimes the stray cats meow. If you sit still, you can hear the wind moving through the trees.

“There’s no Hollywood to it,” said Steve Eades, innkeeper, charter boat captain and general store owner on the island, population 295. “That helps with the religious part of it. Once you’re there, there are no distractions.”

On July 27, the first Sunday of Camp Meeting this year, about 130 people gathered inside a low, dark tabernacle that is opened yearly only for this occasion. The events of the day were much like those of the days that followed: testimony meeting, morning worship, song service and a nightly service.

Worshippers enter quietly, reaching to catch the wooden door before a rusty spring slams it shut, and they talk in low voices inside.

There is little movement. The air isn’t cooled, but it moves with the help of fans suspended overhead. Sitting on the wooden pews, with their hymn books lit by hanging light bulbs, congregants rest their Sunday shoes on a dirt floor covered with sawdust and cedar shavings.

They bring their own Bibles. They wear their best outfits — women in sleeveless dresses and gold earrings and men in neat, silk shirts.

Years ago, families who gathered here camped out in shacks that circled the tabernacle, originally built in 1902. But in 1937, a new furnace in next-door Ewell United Methodist Church sparked a fire that destroyed the church, the tabernacle and the shacks.

Islanders scrimped together their Great Depression cash and managed to rebuild the church and the tabernacle the next year — but not the shacks.

Old-timers, though, remember well the late-night music, the crabbers’ storytelling, the cook fires and mixing of families. They had no running water or electricity, but the Camp Meetings still were a treat. Islanders looked forward to them all year.

“Crabbers would pull their boats up to the island,” said Jennings Evans, 73, a former waterman who traces his Smith Island roots back to 1686. “They didn’t want to miss a meeting.”

And after 1938, in the new tabernacle, organizers kept the Camp Meetings going — through the Depression, wars and more than one island exodus as the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population dwindled, rebounded and dwindled again.

The events of the week still open with a prayer, thanking God for “the crabs, the fish and the oysters.”

“We’ll try to keep it alive as long as we can. It’s something that was passed on to me, and I’m trying to pass on as much as I can to my kids,” said Jennifer Dize, 53, a lifelong islander. “It’s something our forefathers sacrificed a lot to give us.”

These days, the noon meals take the place of the campfire gatherings. Delegate Page Elmore, Salisbury Republican, said the Harrison family treated him to crab salad, Smithfield ham, crab cakes, homemade rolls, string beans and iced tea.

He looks forward, he said, to the “good preaching, good food and good friends.”

After services, people drift just a few feet outside the tabernacle to visit family grave sites. There are about 400 islanders buried in this yard — more people than live on the island.

Most of the tombstones are etched with the same names — Evans, Tyler, Harrison and Bradshaw — families still living here who trace their ancestors back as far as 11 generations.

Many families have close ties to nearby Crisfield and Tangier Island, Va. Several residents said they tried living in those communities or in farther-away Salisbury, Easton or Baltimore. But they were pulled back by the strong ties of the island, if not to live, then to attend Camp Meetings.

“It is unique. We’re probably raised differently from anywhere else in the world,” said Junior Evans, 63, a sparkly eyed crabber who still works the Potomac River every day of the year. “Our fathers set an example for us, and they expect us to follow them. That’s what brings us back. It’s our teachings.”

Ironically, what ended many Camp Meetings in the 20th century may have helped keep the Smith Island gatherings going, said Philip Lawton, a Methodism historian who volunteers at Barratt’s Chapel Museum in Frederica, Del.

Camp Meetings started around 1800, but most faded away in the early 1900s, when America suddenly became more mobile, Mr. Lawton said. People began traveling to resorts instead of religious retreats for vacation.

But on Smith Island, where transportation still was an issue, it was more common to stay behind.

These days, the opposite is true, as former islanders make the effort to book passage to the meetings their grandfathers’ grandfathers founded.

“As long as we’ve still got a few people here and still have the energy, we’ll continue to do it,” Jennings Evans said.

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