Trinity Episcopal Church, Apalachicola, FL, 1884
Over the past twenty-six years, our family has made numerous summer treks to St. George Island, a barrier island three miles off Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Apalachicola, the seat of Franklin County, is seven miles of bridge away, and where you go for supplies.
Apalach is Old Florida. Spanish moss and air sticky-thick, like toasted honey. Weathered captains with rickety skiffs. Queen Anne homes with wraparound porches. A cemetery with gnarled trees, washed-out tombstones, and ghost walks. Apalachicola has one flashing yellow light. One biscuit shop. One soda fountain counter. One very small Piggly Wiggly.
Numerous summers, I’ve made my way to Apalachicola’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Erected in 1838, carpenters constructed the white Greek Revival in White Plains, New York, then sailed the pieces around the tip of Florida and all the way back up to the panhandle where they jigsawed everything back together. Trinity is the state’s second oldest active church. Worshipers have been sitting on and kneeling at these same creaky, gorgeous pews for two centuries.
After service every Sunday, there’s a social hour with sweets and coffee. At the passing of the peace, they do it like they mean it. Folks linger and chat. A few look around to catch the eyes of a friend across the room, offering a neighborly nod or the peace symbol. Announcements cover the upcoming bingo night (no charge) with great prizes (art from a parishioner’s daughter and gift certificates to the local grill) and the fabulous response to the school backpack drive (“we’re small but mighty”). If you wanted to feel like an outsider here, you’d have to go after it on purpose.
On my recent visit, two elderly ushers welcomed everyone at the front door, passing out bulletins and a few hugs. One of the ushers with grey thin-cropped hair was the maestro. He had something to say to almost everyone, usually prompting laughter and a slap on the shoulder. If his hearing aids didn’t do their job, he leaned in closer. His way, like his jean shirt and khakis, was easy.
After a simple sermon from a preacher who believed Jesus was actually in the building, it was communion time, and the two ushers carried the offering and elements to the altar. On their way back toward the pews, I watched the maestro stop at the bottom of the platform steps, turn back facing the altar, and wait.
He stood there until the line of people who’d received the Eucharist began to file back past him, toward their seats. As each person stepped off the final step, he grabbed their hand, looked them in the eye, and gave a sturdy handshake. You received the body and blood of Christ, and then you received the warm hand and warmer smile of the maestro. I watched, eyes moist. I couldn’t wait for my turn.
It didn’t take long, the crowd was small. Up from the kneeler at the altar, wine and bread consumed, then only a few steps. He grabbed my hand. His vigorous clutch insisted that this grace I’d just tasted was as real as his grip, and it wouldn’t ever let me go.
I sat down, filled in every way.
After church, I had to say something. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Sir,” grabbing his hand again, “my favorite part of the service was your handshake.” He put his other hand on the back of my neck, like he would a grandson, and squeezed. There was a glint of wonder, a bare knowing, in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said. And he squeezed again.
The human touch. Kind, wise eyes. Another person just standing there, waiting for me. There’s lots of talk these days about the Church’s demise, hand-wringing over what we must do to regain relevance — most of it makes me want to shove a fire poker in my eyeball. Being the church is not easy, to be sure, but the basics are fairly simple.