It sits atop its own hill at Circuit Avenue and Kennebeck in Oak Bluffs. This central junction means we pass it umpteen times a day on our way to the Post Office, the bakery, the cafe latte joints, and we rarely give ourselves time to notice what a Victorian jewel it is, arguably the prettiest church of the mid-19th century with its exquisite octagonal shape, the high amber-diamond glass windows set in an origami-ish crown: the Union Chapel.
Its earliest past was checkered. The original Methodist Camp-Meeting Association, first a crowd of tents around a makeshift altar, saving souls starting in 1835, had become a tourist destination for the less pious and more festive. To accommodate the unexpected throngs, known in modern parlance as tourists, the Wesley Hotel went up, and canny developers reproduced the look of the charming Campground cottages, only bigger, better, and set on breathable lots.
The original Methodist trustees decreed no dancing, card-playing, smoking, or drinking. These nervous religious elders, appalled at the infidels surrounding them, what with their saloons and even a cathouse at the lower end of Circuit — now the site of family-oriented Giordano’s Restaurant — did everything in their power to curtail the sinful, even forming posses to root out alcohol in drugstores and hotels; at one point the primary board member of the Sea View Hotel was arrested when a guest was caught with a glass of port in a back parlor.
It was the classic battle of the sacred versus the profane, but in this particular struggle, the profane side, in the form of a construction group called the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co., had a good idea: If we can’t lick ’em, join ’em! Let’s build our own church to show that we’re on the Lord’s side too. They had the excellent luck to hire an uncommonly talented Boston architect, Samuel Freeman Pratt. The Union Chapel went up in 1870. It may have been a publicity stunt in its day, but 136 years of devotional services of all denominations, dance concerts, music, poetry, even the first Moth Storytelling exhibition a few years back, have all caused the unimaginably graceful space to soak up such riches of goodwill, love, and joy that it positively reeks of holiness.
These days, and for many seasons past, the board of trustees of the Union Chapel invite renowned ministers to preach on Sunday. This included the July 10th appearance of the Rev. Heidi Neumark, senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan; and on August 21, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III of Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York.
Sunday, August 28, marked the Island debut of the 30-year-old Rev. Brandon Thomas Crowley, Harvard Divinity School graduate and pastor of Myrtle Baptist Church of West Newton. The sanctuary was packed with people on every point of the sartorial scale, from men in shorts and T shirts, to other dapper gentlemen in bespoke suits, to summer beauties of all ages in silk frocks, stunning jewelry, pumps — some of them loftingly high — and jaunty hats. At the grand piano that fits snugly into the base of the pulpit/stage, pianist Stephen Alsop welcomed parishioners to their seats with a jazz-inflected prelude.
The young Rev. Crowley, slim and handsome, stepped up to the twin microphones bracketed by a pair of long white candles. He had us at “hello” basically, along with his invocation, “God of hope, we have sensed your spirit walking with us as we open a new door in our lives, felt your urging when we were reluctant to say yes to a new adventure. Come among us today. Open our eyes to truth wherever it may be found. Allow us to hear the siren song of knowledge and understanding.”
Now picture this: Set high overhead on a balcony above the pulpit, surrounded by forest-green walls and white Tudor moldings, 12 white-clad youths (and one, a tenor, wearing black) from Myrtle Baptist Youth Choir, led by Jonathan Newell Roberts, sang like a flock of angels.
The Rev. Crowley read from Matthew, with a look at Jesus and the Pharisees as a guide to when it’s kosher, as it were, to break the rules, and of how Jesus, as a Jew, encouraged inclusion of all, gentiles and Jews alike, into their circle of worship. “Jesus tore down the wall of religious apartheid,” he said, painting a picture of a holy man with common sense. “He was a rule breaker when necessary!” declared the Rev. Crowley.
The minister also cited passages from the revered theologian Howard Thurman in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited,” a key inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. The Rev. Crowley’s rousing sermon was backed up by piano and organ and more hymns from the Myrtle Baptist youth. The service ended with this reporter’s favorite hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” with the chorus “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”
Amen, brothers and sisters.