My daughter Katie and I just finished crabbing off a small bridge in the marsh on a drizzly day. We’re here on St. Simons Island. I remember my dad teaching me to crab off the same bridge years ago. We actually caught a couple which she named before dumping back into the winding inlet.
Our family is here a few days early before “Pastor’s school.” Family friends from Jackson were generous to let us stay at their place near the beach before we move over to Epworth by the Sea on Monday. Epworth is a Christian retreat center of the United Methodist Church. This is our family’s second year attending “Pastor’s school.” We had heard good things about it. It allows the ministers to engage in continuing education, while allowing our children to mingle with other ‘preachers’ kids.’ We’re still learning what it’s like for our children to be ‘pks’. My mother was one. She used to tell me about her and her sisters’ job as a ‘pk.’
My grandfather was a pastor in south Georgia. It was a tradition in many of those churches to have dinner on the grounds. In south Georgia, you had to be able to stand in line, fill your plate with fried food while simultaneously sticking out your bottom lip and blowing upwards to shew away the gnats.
Dinner on the grounds meant potlucks, a dying legacy in today’s church, probably for good reason. My grandfather instructed his four daughters of their role. After everyone had been served, they were to pass through the line and eat the from all the dishes that hadn’t been touched. That means the bad ones. My grandfather didn’t want them to feel left out. That was part of their life as a ‘pk’. Plop on the helpings of sour tomato pie and burnt okra.
In the Methodist world, the life of a ‘pk’ can be abrupt as ministers and families are constantly moving to new assignments. It’s our Methodist way, but it can be hard on the children as they uproot to new schools and leave behind friends.
Pastor’s school allows them to make friends that become a lasting sense of community. At least, that’s our hope. So we are here. In truth, we have served churches who have loved our children with great care, but life can be challenging for ‘pks’ often arriving at church long before Sunday school and waiting an hour after worship is over as mom and dad talk to one more person or squeeze in that one extra meeting. Thankfully i-Phones keep them entertained, but they’re no substitute for home or us.
It’s different to be on St. Simons these days. My childhood is wrapped up on this island. My grandparents helped run Epworth. My grandfather was the Epworth Superintendent and a good one. Apparently, he knew how to raise money and helped envision and fundraise most of the hallowed buildings overlooking the golden marshes on the Frederica River without any debt. He would always tell people that the secret to raising money was one word: ‘ask’. Of course, that’s not totally true. He did like to ask, but his success was built on his trust.
He loved the people and this place. He would walk the grounds each day and sought to interact with the youth groups and Sunday schools who were visiting for retreat. When my parents’ Sunday school and families visited, he gave us the special treatment by organizing a shrimp boil near near the tabby house under the oak trees with the Spanish moss. For us kids, he hosted an ice cream sundae social for us past our bedtime. He was a good man.
My grandmother offered her time at Epworth most nights in the cafeteria. Many people called her the ‘mo tea sir’ lady. She always carried a pitcher of sweet tea in her hand asking people if she could refill their drinks. For her, it was about hospitality. But more than hospitality it was her way of striking up a conversation and making friends. In one of Jesus’ miracles, he fed the multitudes with fish and loaves. I’m pretty sure had my grandmother been there, she’d have made sure they had tea.
She never tired of talking to people. She loved Epworth. I can recall many times walking past the tennis courts, near a big open field when she would spot a piece of trash 30 yards away. No matter the distance, she was going to pick it up. Every time I see a piece of trash at the churches I serve, I feel a twinge of guilt if I don’t pick it up.
Because groups visited Epworth from all across Georgia, many people knew her by name. I was always surprised how many people in my hometown of Jackson knew and loved her when she visited us at Christmas. It was like that in most places.
She died two years ago. We have no family left on this island. In fact, we have no family left in my home town of Jackson. I’m not sure the word that best describes that feeling of changes in our lives that happen in a drift more than a rapid current. But I feel it. On most visits to St. Simons as a kid, I hardly ever ventured to the tourist parts of the island. We made maybe one visit to the beach but rarely strolled through the village or climbed the light house. But this week, we’ve enjoyed the other side. We’ve ordered shrimp at the Crab Trap, hunted for sand dollars and ridden bikes along the marsh. It’s different, but the laughs of our two daughters remind that it’s still good.
We all have these moments where we move about the places of our past with thankfulness and sadness. As my daughter and I pulled up the crab basket, I watched for a moment the sway of the golden marsh and recalled the quote from the poet Sydney Lanier about this island that my grandmother had hanging in her guests bathroom, “Like to the greatness of God is the greatness within, The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.”
Most of us feel that sense of thankfulness and sadness when we visit places from our past that seem to be gone. But there’s always new life with the next generation in that same place. For the greatness of God in this place, I give thanks.