Vermont’s vanishing churches
Julie Parker Photo
Ellie Holsman, wife of the Rev. Wayne Holsman, stands in the the Hancock-Granville Community Church.
On Route 100, about midway from all four boundaries of the state, Granville and Hancock are far from the most prosperous towns in Vermont. Despite or perhaps because of the nature of the residents of these villages, they have overlooked their denominational and geographical differences in order to keep their white-steepled church open for Sunday services. I found my first niche in this church in summer when they welcomed my hitting wrong notes on their electric organ to accompany hymns.
More moneyed communities with museums or ski areas have let many of their clapboard sanctuaries convert to quilting boutiques or go vacant, leaving water stains over the pulpit and abandoned pews no derriere has graced for years. A little of the heart and soul of a village takes flight when its church locks up permanently.
Last week our Hancock-Granville Community Church had four attendees besides the three choir members and church organist. One was the minister’s wife, Ellie. Ellie stands at the back window before the service begins, perhaps praying for a miracle that one more car might pull into the parking lot. The church is struggling, its longevity linked to that of the faithful parishioners. Fifteen funerals of members have been celebrated during the summers we have spent in Granville, when 26 in the pews was a banner number. And yet Wayne Holsman, our pastor, is one of the outstanding personalities of our valley, erudite and iconoclastic, loving and full of fire for his favorite causes and human beings. He inspires listeners to action as effectively as any of America’s great talk show hosts (Tom Ashbrook comes to mind.) Yet he preaches to five or 10 elderly people each week a cohesive service reflecting his intimacy with the Bible and current events.
Wayne knows and loves everybody in town whether they come to church or not. He will do their weddings, baptisms, burials. Which is not to say he won’t castigate them and us for our thoughtlessness, weak wills and petty distractions which he confides he shares. And he won’t miss the humor counterbalancing each tale of woe. He thunders in righteous indignation over the fate of the Central American kids heartlessly turned back, then breaks out in a blazing smile as he suddenly recalls a past parishioner, or a teacher at Union Seminary, or a saying of Karl Barth, the great Swiss Protestant theologian, or a Jordanian shopkeeper friend in Middlebury who is “a more faithful, generous Muslim than most Christians I know.”
A graduate of Amherst College and cleric who left his mark at Union Theological, Chicago Theological and Hartford seminaries, Wayne is a recovering alcoholic who is proud to announce he has been sober well over 20 years. He befriends or counsels many a substance abuser as one who has been there. He suffers excruciating back problems which don’t keep him from driving over the Middlebury Gap from Ripton summer and winter to officiate on Sunday mornings. No longer able to mount the four steps to the pulpit, he sits at a table in front of them and delivers sermons eye-level with the congregation. His love for these few members scattered throughout the vacant pews could be compared heretically to the love Jesus experienced for his disciples. “You people,” he often pronounces, shaking his head as he chuckles fondly, “you are salt of the earth, I love you. You pitch in whatever the need is, you sacrifice, you roll up your sleeves. You are doers. I wouldn’t exchange you for all the fine, upstanding parishioners of …,” and he names some cathedral of repute where he knew the minister.
Today the theme is his distrust of abstraction. “I’m not a philosopher,” he announces. “Once a churchgoer asked me, ‘What do you see when you talk of God?’ I don’t get into these vague discussions that lead to the nature of being or that kind of stuff. I’m a doer.” There is a pause. He seems to change course with a chuckle. “You know, I love bumper stickers. I love the one that says, ‘I shop, therefore I am.’ Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. No. Descartes had it wrong.”
The listeners lean forward a little. Wayne continues. “I used to have weekly discussions with my friend the professor at Middlebury College. I love that man. He was a member of the Salisbury congregation.” Wayne treasured his years at the helm of the Salisbury church, which he refers to often, full of thinkers, professors, writers at the Rutland Herald. But Wayne feels the professor had it wrong, stuck on Descartes. “Thinking has never changed anyone’s life. Do you think the addict doesn’t know his addiction is killing him? Do you think the smoker struggling to quit doesn’t know she’s destroying her lungs? No. ‘I think, therefore I am’ is just plain wrong. And I shop, (chuckle) therefore I am, is not much better.”
Now Wayne has us in his hands. What does he feel the saying should be? He tells us. “That saying should be — oh, how I struggle with this in my life — it should be, ‘I care, therefore I am.’” These five words are stated profoundly. Then, realizing how hard this is, he adds in fury, “I try to care for all these eight-balls who deny that gun restriction might help reduce violence. I struggle and I just want to know that everyone is struggling with me, trying to care.”
Wayne ends admitting there is no more difficult business than that of trying to be caring, especially for those with whom we differ drastically. He has unleashed his loving ferocity for another week on the handful of us listeners, and we feel stirred, aroused, inspired. Will we keep struggling with the idea that if we are not caring, we are not existing? Who will remind us once our pastors and their congregations are only memories? Whether one is a Congregationalist, Unitarian, agnostic, Buddhist, Episcopalian, follower of Yogananda or silent worshipper of life, and I have been all, pastors who exemplify a true calling, as Wayne Holsman does, are treasures we are ignoring as they slowly slip into silence for lack of listeners.
Julie Parker is a Middlebury College alumna who lives half the year in Granville and the other half in Altadena, Calif. She spent childhood summers in Rutland at the home of her grandfather, Dr. George G. Marshall.