117 and counting

Fri, 10/28/2016 - 10:00am

Today, it is likely more people know — or have some vague familiarity with — the quote “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” from the extraordinary speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington DC on a hot summer day more than 50 years ago, than from the original source, Prophets, specifically, the Old Testament Book of Amos. 

But, I then remember, it was the Reverend Dr. King, whose soaring rhetoric was often drawn from the most powerful of sources, the words of the Bible, so it is no accident that his speeches frequently resembled fiery sermons. He was not just a preacher, but a Baptist preacher, so I am going to think he wouldn’t mind at all the notion of pies flowing down like water and turkeys like a mighty stream as happened at the Harbor Church (aka First Baptist Church of Block Island) all day Tuesday. 

Had Dr. King drifted into our Roll Call Dinner, our fall harvest feast, I like to believe even he would have been left speechless at the sight of the “pie room” and the sheer numbers of people eating and, in 2016, peacably talking to each other.

It began over a hundred years ago, this dinner which was a whole day event, incorporating the calling of the church roll, which we now read on the Sunday closest to Oct. 23, the date of our “gathering.” That 1765 “birthday” is more accurately the marking of the final, at-long-last-sticking formalization of a congregation that some date to the day Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston for her great crime of not acquiescing to the Puritan elders. 

Radicals our forebears were, longing for real religious freedom, not the as-long-as-you-believe-like-us “freedom” of the Bay Colony of that time. They were more willing to risk their lives moving to a strange, isolated island than to court death at the hands of theocratic rulers.

By the start of the 20th century, the congregation that grew from that early band had had several homes, and had most recently followed commerce from the old town center east, to the commercial district growing up around the still-new Government Harbor. A few years earlier they had had a summer chapel built on what would become Chapel Street, a fine building with soaring ceilings and a pipe organ, for the use of summer visitors.

winter chapel was added to it and with that the need for a fully functioning furnace and the pastor, Dr. Horace Roberts, looked to mainland churches for a solution and Roll Call came to Block Island.  And it has lasted, through years of boom and of war, of Depression and hurricane, of slow recoveries and returned bounty

It lasted through the loss of that beloved Chapel Street church to fire on a windy night in December of 1944. Somewhere in those years of transition, Roll Call became part of Sunday worship, the dinner a separate event the following Tuesday.

This year, on a chilly and windy October night, the 117th Harbor Church Roll Call dinner was served, the culmination of a several weeks’ effort by a wide network of helpers across the island, including turkey roasters and pie bakers, peelers and mashers and carvers and servers, helpers of every ilk, some who have pitched in for years, some newcomers to the backside of the event, ones we hope will be there next year. 

I have said many times we at Harbor Church are blessed with a great building; people today might be surprised to learn in the 1960’s the future looked so dire conversations were of removing the third floor — amazingly, in the context of the time, it was not that odd or unusual a concept — but the same budgetary constraints that sparked the discussion prevented it going beyond the talking stages.

Should anyone look at dates there is a considerable gap between the loss of the Chapel Street church in late 1944 to the 1952 laying of the cornerstone of the current meeting house addition to the old Adrian Hotel.  It was not the construction or the permitting that took so long, the delay was in a long and convoluted tale of decision and argument. It should not come as a surprise: our 1765 gathering date came six-and-a-half decades after the first preacher was called, an island boy who had gone to Harvard but became “corrupted” or “infected” or some like term by that Massachusetts school.  

After two years, Block Island and the Rev. Niles gave up on each other and the latter returned to Massachusetts where he enjoyed a long and successful ministry. It makes one wonder if those involved in the original attempt had to have taken permanent residence on the Hill for it to be tried again.

We’ve come a long way from the 1960s, when indecision proved to be our friend, I was reminded reading a message from a classmate who recalled waitressing at the Roll Call Dinner when we were in high school. I thought of the crowded space in which we had worked, tight even serving a markedly smaller crowd. 

The sunroom along the south side of the building had not been added and the kitchen was a fraction of its current size, perhaps wide enough to accommodate the two large ranges currently in place but no more. Sometimes we need to remember the accomplishments of the past to make the future less daunting.

Still, there are times I stand in that building and want to bang my head against the wall with the latest absurdity — usually involving a coffee pot that should perk — then comes this year’s Roll Call Dinner, when immeasurable hard work and planning come together and the blessing of these people all pulling together is humbling.