A love feast
By Frances Stebbins
When late husband Charlie Stebbins and I moved from Petersburg to Roanoke at mid-20th Century to become reporters for the daily evening newspaper, I was assigned to write of events of churches.
I soon discovered that about a dozen congregations existed known as The Church of the Brethren. In my childhood in Piedmont Virginia east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there were no faith communities of that name. My Shenandoah Valley-born mother might have mentioned the group, but I had lost her several years earlier.
Getting to know many folk in one of the historic “peace churches” became one of the most satisfying experiences of my spiritual life.
There are several groups around Roanoke with the designation of “Brethren.” This reflection will apply especially to the most numerous and most theologically liberal.
Being spring , it’s a time for a special elaborate service of Holy Communion practiced by these Christians and known as “the Love Feast.” Several decades ago one Sunday afternoon I observed such a service held by the most traditionalist of Brethren groups.
It was held at the group’s (then) meeting house at Cove and Green Ridge Road in Northwest Roanoke County. The simple frame building is now used by another Christian group, for the Old Order Brethren built a new meeting house several years later on Green Ridge Road; members—most of whom earn their living from the land or as school bus drivers—did all the work themselves, for these folk follow strictly a lifestyle sometimes described as “unspotted from the world.”
The spring afternoon that I visited the meeting house, I wore a head covering and was admitted to the assembly on condition that I would not publicize anything that I experienced. I promised the bearded black-clad elder that I would comply and was then invited to sit on a plain backless bench with others who were not known to the community.
(I kept my promise of silence for several years until I read of the death of the elderly man who to whom I had made it. Then in a column and mentioning no names, I described objectively what I had seen and heard.)
These Old Order Brethren, who today are found mainly in Franklin and Botetourt Counties, dress distinctively with the women in simple dresses they sew themselves and small prayer caps. The men, often bearded and with a rounded haircut, maintain a lifestyle of 200 or more years ago. Unlike the Pennsylvania Amish, to whom they are kin culturally and historically, these Brethren do not dress their children in what they refer to as “the uniform,” for that is worn by persons 18 and older who have made a lifetime commitment to conscientious objection to war and abstinence from smoking, alcohol and wagering.
As I watched the ceremony at the chapel in Northwest County, I saw a meal of roast beef being eaten around the tables. Only then, after the body had been symbolically nourished, did the assembly proceed with the Love Feast. There was extensive prayer, silent and spoken. Men sat separately from women, and some hymns were sung a capella. In a ritual “kiss of peace” participants were of the same sex.
At this Old German Baptist/Old Order Brethren ceremony the event began at 4 p.m. and did not conclude until after 8.
At another time I attended a spring Love Feast at the Cloverdale Church of the Brethren in Botetourt. That congregation is one of the stronger in the administrative district known as Virlina, which has headquarters in Roanoke. It represents the predominant Church of the Brethren nearby.
At Cloverdale I attended more than 20 years ago the funeral of Max A. Murray, orchardist and cider producer, and a decade later that of his remarkable wife, Dorothy Garst Murray.
This brings me to the heart of this appreciation for the many of this German-origin people that I have been privileged to know over my years in the Roanoke Valley.
“Dottie” Murray was one of the first I encountered as a new religion reporter covering the clergy group then known as the Roanoke Ministers Conference. The mother of a mentally slow son, Steve, she was attaining national prominence in the field of understanding how mental retardation can affect a family. She spoke at the clergy meeting on the book she had written, “This Is Stevie’s Story”.
Before her death in 2000, Murray published several more books; one, “Sister Anna,” was about a COB icon, the Rev. Dr. Anna Beahm Mow, who retired to her native Roanoke area after national prominence as a missionary to India, author and seminary professor.
My file from the second half of the last century is fat with clippings of Church of the Brethren friends. There are, besides Murray, Eleanor and Dr. Gerald Roller, mentors to my late husband and me in the Marriage Enrichment movement; many pastors but especially the late Harold Moyer and Merlin Garber as well as my physician for many years, the late Herman Brubaker. In 1998 I interviewed Lois McGuffin, a retired teacher and poet from Bonsack. I talked to volunteers ready to go help communities when natural disasters strike.
There’s a story on the coming of the Rev. David Shumate as the district administrator some 30 years ago when he was just 35. Another recounts a gathering at the Ninth Street (SE) Church of the Brethren when a dozen couples with marriages of 50 or more years came together for a celebration.
More recently I met Jason Snebold, 17, who cleared a wooded lot at Oak Grove Church of the Brethren to earn his Eagle Scout award and Patricia Ronk of an Old Order Brethren family who told me in this century how she felt called by God to break away from the “unspotted” ideal to extensive education as a counselor.
The Rev. Karen Carter and her late husband, the Rev. Clyde Carter, I profiled too; they met in her native Germany when he was doing Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) as a young man.
How often too have I enjoyed the local camp and conference center, Camp Bethel, in Botetourt, which the Church of the Brethren has operated for nearly a century.
I cannot imagine the Roanoke Valley without these hard-working, peace-loving people.