By Frances Stebbins
Growing up in my small Piedmont Virginia town, I didn’t know about the The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.)
Not that the faith community was unknown in the area. There is a congregation in the nearby town of Gordonsville and others in the countryside. And for a short time each summer a simple camp meeting area came alive as folk moved in for days and evenings of preaching by guest evangelists.
That was more than 75 years ago in Great Depression times. We can hardly imagine today that such gatherings were eagerly awaited by many church-supporting people.
I came to know more about this distinctively Protestant, American-born religious group after late husband Charlie Stebbins and I came to Roanoke to work for the daily newspaper 68 years ago next month. He became a general assignment news reporter and over his long career spent his favorite 12 years covering the decade of the 1960s from an office in Salem; it’s now long closed and used by Roanoke College.
The evening paper needed a Religion reporter so I was assigned to that beat. Among many other things, I learned that the Roanoke Valley had around a dozen congregations designated as The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.)
Later, a pastor serving one of these congregations called it “the church of the parenthesis.”
The group is also especially strong in Craig County, where for many decades the picturesque old resort once known as Craig Healing Springs, is owned by the Virginia association that loosely binds the independently-governed congregations together. Over my years at the newspaper I reported several times on summer events held at the mountain retreat, including camps for youth and guest speakers at the all-weather lodge.
The parenthesis is important to these Christians who are distinguished from many others loosely bearing the title because of their general approach to Bible interpretation and willingness to work with persons in other denominations.
It is for this inclusivity that I have admired the pastors and those they serve in the congregations. When the term “Disciples” is used, a clear distinction is made between them and a group known as “The Church of Christ” which also is widely found in our mountain-valley country. Briefly, one might say Disciples are more liberal in interpretation of Scripture compared to the conservative style of members of the Church of Christ. Most Disciples clergy today are seminary-trained.
One distinctive of Disciples of Christ congregations is the reception of Holy Communion each Sunday; it’s grape juice rather than the fermented wine used by several other denominations. The bread, representing the Body of Christ, may also be received in different forms as it was the past summer when I enjoyed outdoor services at Salem’s First and Fort Lewis churches.
In getting to know clergy of these churches in my early days of writing about local congregations, I learned that this group lays claim to being born in the United States in the early years of the 19th Century. Its founders, Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, were of Presbyterian background, and worship style today is simple
Kentucky, where summer camp meetings were popular, is considered the birthplace of the Disciples, and the greatest strength of the group is in the middle-west. Pastors coming to Western Virginia are often from that area.
In Salem, in the two congregations with which I’m most familiar, First and Fort Lewis, outreach to people is of prime importance. Ministry to the incarcerated, strong support of the local food pantry and clothing closet and whenever worship or projects with other religious groups are initiated will always find Disciples active. In Roanoke, the Belmont and Loudon Avenue congregations date from early in Star City history. The Bethany and Westhampton congregations came following World War II and serve the north and south sides of the city.
For decades the City of Lynchburg has been associated with Disciples. State administrative offices and a university are there.
Writing this, I was interrupted by a phone call from my Florida daughter telling me of the storming of the national capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump. Suddenly, it seemed, the world stopped, as it did in my childhood at Pearl Harbor, when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred and when the deranged young man at Virginia Tech committed his carnage in 2007.
I could only pray that lives would be spared. Many more could have died.