Give Light ~ Church under the Oaks ~

Frances Stebbins


{This is a memory from the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.}


Despite the searing heat the past Sunday morning, I found outdoor worship at Oak Grove Church of the Brethren on McVitty Road just off Electric Road to be powerfully inspiring.

That’s because the Oak Grove folk held their hour-long service, enhanced by two deeply personal ministrations, on a slight rise at the rear of the church under tall and spreading oaks. Pastor Tim Harvey presented his message taken from a favorite New Testament Letter to the Romans with the aid of modern electronics – not entirely reliable, as often these days – and four musicians offered accompaniment to favorite hymns.

Not many congregations, trying to get back to “live” worship despite the need to guard against COVID-19, are blessed to have a shaded grove in the backyard. We worshipers left our cars in the spacious parking lot in front of the building and, carrying our folding chairs, made our way a few yards into the dense shade. It lasted throughout the service.

After all, the oaks give the suburban community its name. Once a village in rural Roanoke County, it burgeoned into suburbs after World War II and with the building of what is now officially Electric Road – named for the sadly idled General Electric plant in East Salem – it’s now part of affluent neighborhoods.

The present worship center with its sunny fellowship hall, kitchen and nursery area was not there when I first learned of Church of the Brethren folk on my arrival with late husband Charlie in 1953. At that time this historic congregation used a simple frame building, also in a grove just across the McVitty Road. As the area grew from country to suburb in the mid-1950s, leaders purchased acreage about a block to the south and erected a larger and better-equipped church with a parsonage nearby.

They sold the frame building to the Showtimers local theater group which was outgrowing its space at Roanoke College.

Back to the outdoor worship. I enjoyed seeing what had been done over the past decade or so to beautify the rear of the property. For I recall meeting there with a young man aspiring to earn his Eagle Scout designation by clearing out some of the underbrush from the rear wooded space. That he did so is evident as plans are underway for a Prayer Garden and other enhancements. A well-equipped playground is already in place.

Church leaders had carefully prepared for the service as an introduction to resuming indoor worship in early fall, but, as Harvey pointed out in his remarks as we settled ourselves, nothing is certain. Present plans are to continue to offer the service electronically, and on a rainy Sunday that will be available as for any who fear even outdoor distancing. Incidentally, everyone wore masks and many, including the pastor, were attired in shorts and sandals.

The Order of Worship was fully available in bulletins handed out with both words and music for singers. We were, however, requested to sing softly into our masks even as we might feel rejoicing “in our hearts.”

I was moved by the four instrumentalists: Stephen Wills, keyboard; Joe Blaha, arranger and recorder; Sam Phillips, viola, and Rose Harvey, French horn.

Brethren, one of the historic “peace churches” originating in Germany as an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation, are strongly family-oriented. Among early settlers of the Southern Shenandoah Valley, they are a major denomination, especially in Franklin, Botetourt and the counties to the north. Their practical work ethic is second only to their commitment to peace.

Two of their distinctive practices were displayed under the oaks on Sunday. The pastor’s young adult daughter, Rose Harvey – also a skillful French horn player – has been accepted for a year of Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS). She will leave soon for Portland, Oregon, to work in an urban Food Pantry. She was “blessed on her way” by several church leaders, placing their hands on her back as we in the congregation shared in responsive prayers.

As is true with young adults in several other denominations, BVS is often part of their religious commitment and, as Harvey said, grows from the strength they draw from others in their church.

He referred also in his message to the concern members have shown for one another during the four months of confinement indoors.

Again, this concern was shown for a senior adult woman awaiting surgery for spreading cancer. At her request, the pastor said, she was anointed for healing in the presence of her fellow members; they promised prayers and support for her recovery.


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