Guest commentary by Neil Sagebiel
It’s nearing 6 p.m. on Tuesday. A short while ago my 14-year-old daughter, Caroline, arrived home from soccer practice and rushed upstairs to change. Now she is standing in the kitchen dressed in skinny jeans and a sweater.
It’s time to go, she says.
Caroline can’t drive herself, and I can’t say no – not to this. I want to go, too. So does her mom, Sally. The three of us get into the car.
Twenty miles from the only stoplight in Floyd County, Virginia, on a little knob beside a two-lane country road, sits a small white church. At least it looks like a church, which it should because it has been perched on this spot since horses and wagons kicked up dust on the primitive road a century ago. But as the handful of white signs with green and gold lettering attest on our way to this remote corner of the county, this, decidedly by a banjo-player-turned-pastor, is not a church.
This is Wild Goose Christian Community.
Although it may sound like a clever code word for church, there is an emphasis on the word “community” here, both in thought and practice. Whatever the meaning or intention, this is where my teenage daughter wants to come on Tuesday nights. I’ve been taking Caroline to church since she was a baby, and now, in a sense, she is taking me.
When I walk up the steps and into the small white church now known as Wild Goose, I’m accustomed to not seeing pews. They were removed when Edwin Lacy (the pastor and banjo picker) remodeled this space. A few dozen rocking chairs of all sizes and varieties form a circle in this old sanctuary. Sturdy hardwood floors are underfoot. A fireplace is situated up front where one might expect to see a pulpit, with two quilts draped on rocking chairs on both sides. A simple wooden cross hangs above the fireplace.
Formerly Indian Valley Presbyterian Church, this house of worship is like an oversized Appalachian living room with stained glass windows.
The new name for this place is no accident. In Celtic tradition, the wild goose is a symbol of the Holy Spirit – free, loud, unpredictable. Says Edwin with a smile, “It will bite you on the butt,” not unlike the Holy Spirit.
On this Tuesday, another in more than a yearlong succession of Tuesdays, my daughter comes to sit in one of these rocking chairs, to be in this circle. This is her new circle of friends, not at all the kind I could have expected. The few dozen people in this circle are not teenagers or school friends or girls. All her new friends at Wild Goose are older than Caroline, in some cases even older than her parents.
We walk past the rocking chairs and head downstairs to the basement where everyone gathers for a potluck supper. Wild Goose begins with a blessing and a shared meal. Three quarters of an hour later we climb the stairs and take a seat in the circle.
Although currently a project of the Abingdon Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Wild Goose is non-denominational. It was conceived by Edwin Lacy to attract and welcome all who, in his words, “might never darken the door of a traditional church,” as well as churchgoers of all stripes. It meets on Tuesday nights in order to not compete with other faith communities and churches. (On Sundays, our family attends the Presbyterian Church of Floyd.)
Wild Goose has received a surprising amount of regional and national media attention. A locally produced National Public Radio segment about Wild Goose won a journalism award and was aired on NPR stations throughout the United States. Newspaper and magazine stories have popped up like dandelions. There was no concerted publicity effort. It was as if Wild Goose bit the butt of the wider public.
For a good while, it was not unusual to see cars filled with strangers from distant places roll up the gravel driveway off Macks Mountain Road. “We heard about it on NPR and wanted to come check it out.”
We go directly from supper to the Lord’s Supper. Communion is served from a common plate and a mason jar because we are in Appalachia and Wild Goose is a reflection of mountain culture. If Jesus were a hillbilly, Edwin says, he’d take communion from a mason jar just like we do.
And that’s sort of the idea of this whole business – Jesus identifying with us and us, hopefully, identifying with him.
Edwin sings and strums his clawhammer banjo.
If somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me.
You would lose them. I know how to use them. Give them all to me.
Chairs rock. Feet tap. Heads nod. “Pack Up Your Sorrows” is a regular tune and favorite at Wild Goose.
We greet God by going around the circle and sharing something that we’re thankful for about spring. Then we spend several minutes in meditative and spoken prayer.
There is no sermon at Wild Goose. Edwin says he is as interested in what we have to say about Scripture and God as what he would say to us after earning a seminary degree and serving 15 years as a pastor. Instead of preaching, Edwin leads “a discussion for thinking Christians.” Life’s big questions and God’s involvement bounce around the circle. Sometimes there are long silences, a kind of answer in itself.
The focus is on discussion, not on agreement. “What do y’all think about this?” Edwin will ask.
Sometimes we are comforted, often we are confused, and the evening’s topic usually fuels our conversation during the car ride home. The discussion ends and the music begins, two or more folks playing old hymns and gospel tunes on the guitar, fiddle and banjo.
When the roll is called up yonder. When he roll is called up yonder.
When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
We sing along, rocking back and forth. For the next several minutes, any confusion from the discussion melts like butter on a warm biscuit.
Edwin calls Wild Goose a “thin place,” a term from Celtic tradition used to describe a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is unusually thin. Maybe every place is a thin place, but, unlike Wild Goose, maybe in others places it’s harder to recognize.
We close the evening by rising from our rocking chairs, clasping hands and singing one last song. The circle draws tighter as we join hands.
We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.
Sometimes Caroline is beside me and I get to hold her hand, like I did so many times when she was a little girl, but more often she is not, across the way next to Susan or Edwin’s wife, Roye. I realize Caroline and I are still holding hands, though, part of the same circle.
We head out into the night for the winding return trip to Floyd. The warm glow from Wild Goose follows us out, slips into our car and rides all the way home.
NEIL SAGEBIEL is a writer and an author of two books published by St. Martin’s Press, “The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open” (named a Top 10 Sports Book of 2012 by Booklist) and “Draw in the Dunes: The 1969 Ryder Cup and the Finish That Shocked the World.” He is a ruling elder at Presbyterian Church of Floyd.
All Wild Goose photos courtesy of Edwin Lacy.