GREEN MOUNTAIN FALLS • The church is transforming.
Construction tape surrounds what will be the new courtyard. The inside is gutted, some walls gone and new ones coming up, electrical wiring exposed, hinting at new technology. Church in the Wildwood will have state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems. It’s aiming to be worthy of a designated shelter in the case of disaster — the new showers being one necessary addition. It’s aiming to achieve a high standard of handicap accessibility. The new elevator, church leaders believe, will be the first installed in this little town.
But at the moment, no gathering is safe in the church. The space is reserved for workers in hard hats and sturdy boots.
“It just so happens when the building is unusable, we aren’t using it anyway,” the Rev. Darlene Avery says. “That’s a little bit of, what do you call it? Grace?”
That’s positive thinking by a pastor who, like small-town pastors everywhere, could otherwise feel the demoralizing weight of the pandemic. Times have indeed been tough at Church in the Wildwood, with a congregation numbering in the 50s.
COVID-19 has been “crushing,” says Jeff Chapman, the church’s moderator, a role that has him overseeing finances.
Construction here can lend the wrong impression, he says. The job is thanks to a generous, pre-pandemic pledge from a foundation.
“But none of that goes to our operating budget, none of it goes to paying bills,” Chapman says. Observers “don’t necessarily understand … we’re a very small congregation that has been blessed with gifts, but we still need community gifts to pay our bills.”
The construction could be called the fourth significant job in the history of the church, which started in 1889, modestly expanding along with the village, whose first families made homes in tents across the scenic hills. Residents pitched in money and labor to finish the sanctuary in 1893. So began the longest-going church in Green Mountain Falls.
For 10 months now, the pews have sat empty. “That’s my pulpit,” Avery says, pointing to a stand with a laptop that streams her sermons.
On the wall behind the altar reads a message from the Book of Psalms: “The mountains shall bring peace to the people.” Previously, Bonnie Linn would look to those words and feel the warm glow through the stained-glass windows and take in the silence or the songs.
“There’s a feeling when you walk in there,” Linn says. “I can’t even explain it.”
Now she can’t do that. Now she and fellow congregants are enduring the church’s latest test of time. There have been plenty of others — a pandemic 100 years ago and world wars and economic downturns.
This century, a decision was made to align with United Church of Christ’s open and affirming designation, a move welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and nonbinary people into the church. “A large, conservative contingent of the church separated,” Avery says.
Politically, Church in the Wildwood proudly considers itself purple. And it’s one reason why Avery, long active in the region’s clergy, had always admired the church — for how “we simply love and respect each other,” as Chapman puts it. Avery filled the pastoral position last year.
“This is a very care- and mission-focused church,” she says, another reason for her admiration. “And that was so well demonstrated when the pandemic hit.”
The church’s food pantry became busier than ever, following a national trend. Church in the Wildwood’s pantry was among those overwhelmed. Numbers are reportedly up sixfold — up to 600 guests some months, leaders say, not far off the village’s year-round population.
“We’re kind of isolated up here,” says Linn, the volunteer explaining why the pantry had never collaborated much with other regional pantries. “We know each other now.”
Help has also come from locals seeing the suddenly busy scene along the church’s curb. They’ve donated food and joined a volunteer waiting list.
“The pandemic has been horrible. It’s been an extremely dark time,” Linn says. “But the one good thing is seeing all of us come together.”
It’s how the church has survived all this time, Avery says.
“There really is sort of a mountain culture and mountain feel to this place, and these are people who know how to get through hard times. You pull up and pull together.”
This content was originally published here.