‘God Has Always Protected Tangier’
By Margaret Carmel and Diana DiGangi
Religion is key to the culture of Tangier Island. The church provides reassurance that a higher power is watching over the island, protecting it from storms and erosion.
TANGIER ISLAND — There are two churches here: Swain Memorial, a large United Methodist church, and a smaller non-denominational church.
Swain Memorial is located at the center of town, flanked by graveyards on three sides.
Religion is key to the culture of the island. The church provides reassurance that a higher power is watching over the island, protecting it from storms and erosion. It also is a valuable source of community and aid. The island’s residents pray for each other on Sundays and meet often for potlucks and fundraisers.
“It may seem like God is not present here now, because we are losing shoreline, the water level is rising, but God has protected this island up ’til this point,” said Pastor John Flood, who was assigned to the island by his bishop several years ago. “God has always protected Tangier.”
Despite the tight-knit nature of Tangier, there is a split in ideology that determines who attends which church’s services. The mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, stopped attending Methodist services after the higher-ups in the church criticized Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Eskridge is a steadfast supporter of Israel, and has painted a Star of David on his crabbing boat under an ichthys — the Christian “sign of the fish.”
“The Bible talks about Israel,” said Eskridge. “It says ‘all those who bless Israel, all will bless. And those who curse, them all will curse.’ That’s pretty clear.”
The services at Swain on the Sunday following Easter focused strongly on Christian revivalism, both on a global level and on the island itself. Flood impressed upon the congregation that a renewal of faith in the church would pay off for churchgoers, and that absolute trust had to be placed in God for Him to work through them. The Methodist Church places great significance on the continuing presence of God and inevitability of the Second Coming.
The congregation spent the beginning of the service praying for each other. They expressed highly personalized concerns — about residents’ visits to see doctors on the mainland, for example, and the health of various pets.
Then there was a short sermon for the handful of young children on the island, who are fussed over and doted on by islanders as if they were kin to all. In Tangier, it takes a village.
“There’s a lot of history here, a lot of wonderful people,” Flood said. “It would be a shame to lose this lifestyle and this heritage.”
The pastor is cautiously optimistic about the proposed jetty project, which was announced in 2012 as a much-needed bulwark against further erosion of the island. Without it, experts say, Tangier will be uninhabitable by 2050.
“We’ve had promises of the jetty,” he said. “I’ve only been here for three years, but what I know is the money was appropriated for it, and then went to another cause. They told us last year that it would happen. We are praying that it will.”
Keeping with his Methodist teachings, the pastor maintained that despite what appear to be grim circumstances, the residents of Tangier have reason to keep hoping that the island will be provided for in the fullness of time.
“There is a great need for the jetty,” Flood said. “I think God has an eventual plan that will unfold. There’s a reason for all this. Maybe He is teaching us patience.”