Roll Call Pivot

Thu, 10/14/2021 - 3:45pm

October brings our last holiday weekend of the season. It has been a tough summer for seasonal resorts, help has been lacking, especially in restaurants, closures seemed to come earlier this year while visitors continued to arrive and the question “what’s a good place for lunch?” became a less selective “what’s open?” and finding an answer was more and more a challenge.
We seem to have made it through a second summer of Covid, with less general mayhem than in 2020 but with more positive tests, many folding back to that shortage of help and overlapping of staff.
But we are here on the brink of Roll Call at the Harbor Church, another time of turkeys being roasted in kitchens around the island, and pie, glorious pie, being baked by a legion of people who can accomplish such an old-fashioned task with ease.
We at the church had hoped, back in the heady days of high summer, to have limited seating, to begin to restore some normalcy to this event that has run since 1900, but have since determined it is still too soon. Again, the dinner will be a strictly take-out service, on Tuesday, October 26, starting early in consideration of the rushing sunset, from 4:30 to 6:30, first come first served.
We hold onto Roll Call while all around us Block Island is not the place out of time it used to be, not a little fishing and farming community that opens its doors for a couple of short summer months before returning to its own, insular life.

Roll Call at Harbor Church is known as a dinner, a community event and it could never happen without wide community participation, roasting all those turkeys and baking all those pies. It began differently, as a calling of the membership roll of the church, a re-grouping on whatever Sunday fell closest to the formal gathering of the church in October of 1765. It was in 1900 when churches everywhere, not just in small, insular, towns, were a — if not the — focal point of life. The roll was called, a great feast was served, and evening services, highlighted by the young people’s choir, followed.
From a letter by a previous pastor: “1900. A new century. Dr. Roberts. A new pastor at the Harbor Church. October. A new month, but the same old winter moving in day by day. And the old furnace had died. The Chapel Street sanctuary had been built as a summer chapel and converted to year round use, but the furnace. . . What to do? Dr. Roberts imported an idea other churches in New England had found a blessing. Roll Call. He would call the roll and ask the church members to make a commitment to the Lord and to the Furnace Fund. The roll was called. The people stood and were counted. The furnace was fixed!”
We were a prosperous little place. The congregation had a big church at the center, on the hillside. The big, vaulted space with the great pipe organ was constructed as a non-denominational summer chapel for the visitors filling the big hotels and populating the boarding houses. They eventually followed commerce and added a winter chapel to the summer building.
Dr. Roberts probably could have raised the money without “all that work” but he might have seen the opportunity to gather his flock in a new and different way, to collect any sheep that might have wandered off during the summer. Even in 1900.
We grew up hearing stories of that church and especially of Roll Call and “the ladies” — that mainstay of so many churches for so long — coming up from the kitchen all flushed from a day of cooking, putting aside their aprons for services. There were names attached, I am sure, unfamiliar to me when I heard them so long ago, never truly registering.

My first memories of Roll Call are in the building my parents always called The Adrian for the elegant hotel it had been before it was left to the church and the sanctuary added. The kitchen was small and dark — perhaps a third of the size it is today, and what will probably always be the sunroom had yet to be added to the south side of the building.

It had been split by then, in the fifties the island population was at it’s nadir and there had been, I later learned, a considerable disagreement among the congregation over what to do after the Chapel Street church burned, to move to the Adrian, visible through the smoke in a morning-after photo of the ruins, or to build a new, small, affordable building.
Good sense did not prevail, they sold their stand alone parsonage, where a pastor had created a rock garden featured on a postcard, and added onto the Adrian.

Thankfully, good sense did not prevail. Yes, the building has been a work in progress my whole life, but it has served both the church and the community well. It has evolved as has Roll Call, now split between Sunday Services (the call of the roll) and the Tuesday following (the dinner). As another pastor, in an annoyingly undated letter, wrote:
“While the worship provides us with the opportunity to affirm our commitment to God and the Harbor Church the dinner provides us with a turkey dinner in the company of our Island friends. Together, they have become a unique expression of church’s ministry as we mark the change of the season.”

We cannot share a dinner in the company of our friends as we had hoped during the summer, as we had expected a year ago. Roll Call is still a fund raiser, but not the last push to land securely in the black before the year ended it used to be. Next year, we will gather together; Roll Call is one of our oldest traditions, cobbled together during some lean years but always returning in force.

And, yes, we have ordered more turkeys!