By Frances Stebbins, Correspondent
[This is a memory from the many decades the author has been privileged to write for daily and weekly newspapers circulating in Western Virginia.]
In the Smith Mountain Lake community, some residents are marking the 30th Anniversary of the formal establishment of an unusual congregation known as Trinity Ecumenical Parish.
Dating from 1991, it is built spiritually on Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations. Its name, ”Trinity,” standing in some Christian groups for “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” is appropriate.
I have followed the planning, birth and growth of the parish from its beginning as it developed out of the trend, notable in the 1970s and 1980s, for long-established religious groups to merge or, at least, to try to carry on ministry together.
The “Three in One” congregation was a long time coming.
Newcomers to the Roanoke valley may not realize that the Smith Mountain Lake community, now populated by many affluent retired persons, dates only from about 60 years ago. The lake, like many developed for its water-power in the past 70 years, covers formerly rural areas where Franklin and Bedford Counties come together. Family campgrounds were popular there in the early days, but the village of Moneta has long since become a settled town with all necessary facilities.
As the area developed, church leaders also saw the possibilities of new congregations, especially since so many residents had been active in a faith community in their former homes. Soon Resurrection Catholic’s building went up on Virginia 122, the main highway from Bedford.
United Methodist congregations and those of The Church of the Brethren were already established but picked up growth with the town. However, three denominations widely represented in Western Virginia, might have also developed new churches. Some effort was apparently made to do this, but it is costly to buy land and put up a church building in a fast-developing area, and by the waning years of the 20th-Century some realized the area was already well supplied with places to worship God.
Leaders, however, became creative and decided to work together to bring about a new thing. It has apparently succeeded far beyond early expectations.
My first yellowed clippings on what became Trinity Ecumenical Parish date from May of 1988. At that time, a weekly Saturday evening service was begun at Epworth United Methodist Church. Originally, some of the leadership came from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bedford which had sponsored a mission Bible study at the lake for five years.
During the summer of 1987, leaders in Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian regional governing bodies experimented with a Saturday evening service which proved successful enough that the following May a service was scheduled at 11:30 a.m. It was held at the new Resurrection Catholic Church on Virginia 122 in Moneta.
A shortage of priests caused the Catholics to hold weekly Mass on Saturday evenings; their pastor was based at a Roanoke parish. This made space available for the three Protestant groups. The Rev. Joe Lehman, pastor of Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church in the Cave Spring area of Roanoke County for many years, traveled down to Moneta on Saturday evenings.
A lot of planning went into what is now Trinity Ecumenical Parish with some nay-sayers who suggested the purity of doctrine of the three denominations would be weakened. Others doubted that the more elaborate style of worship Lutherans and Episcopalians followed from a service book would be too confusing to Presbyterians who follow a simpler format.
In the long run, the objections were overcome. By September of 1988, when I was visiting, unannounced, a Western Virginia congregation for a monthly Sojourner column, the ministry at the lake was getting off to a good start. A retired Episcopal clergyman, Nolan Akers from Bedford, was the preacher for the day. I noted, however, that leaders from Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, especially its minister, the late William R. Klein, were active. I also spoke with some Lutherans in the Catholic Church fellowship area.
Originally, my clippings reveal, the group did not plan to erect a building, but that came in due time. A large worship center came first and is clearly visible from the area around the Halesford Bridge. An addition for education and fellowship events, conveniently reached by a ramp and near flower and garden space followed.
The story of the church cannot be told without recognition of the 20-year pastorate of a Presbyterian minister, Gary Scheidt. In his later years, Scheidt was assisted by Philip Bouknight, an ordained Lutheran and a bass soloist. Upon Scheidt’s retirement in 2014, Bouknight became pastor, and later his assistant, another Presbyterian Bea Miller, joined the staff.
Since 2011, the music program at the parish has been recognized as outstanding. A composer, Aaron Garber, formerly organist and choir director at
College Lutheran in Salem, moved to the ecumenical congregation and later produced several oratorios which employed the vocal talents of Bouknight and his wife, Tara.
One has to experience a Sunday worship service at the church to appreciate how smoothly things work as the style is rotated every three months and a council of representatives of the Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians make overall decisions. Separate identity is maintained while folk from each group are united in fellowship.
In my working days, I loved opportunities to take part in events at the special Trinity.