Pews Are Out, Fireplace Is In At Restored Appalachian Church

A tiny Presbyterian church in southwestern Virginia is coming back to life, thanks to a new pastor who's mixing old-time Appalachian culture with a new twist on worship.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And we take you now to southwestern Virginia, where a small struggling church is getting a second life thanks to a new pastor who's mixing old-time Appalachian culture with a new style of worship. Robbie Harris brings us the story of the Wild Goose Church in Floyd County, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PACK UP YOUR SORROWS")

PASTOR EDWIN LACEY: (Singing) No use crying, talking to a stranger. Naming the sorrow you've seen.

ROBBIE HARRIS, BYLINE: Edwin Lacey is part preacher, part musician. That gave him an idea for this abandoned one-room church in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia.

LACEY: The congregation had gotten so small that they had decided to close it. A lot of times what happens when these little churches in pretty remote areas get closed, we just sell them. The Presbyterian, the denomination will sell them. And being in Floyd County, I knew that of anywhere around here it might be open to something different.

HARRIS: Lacey and a partner refurbished this building, which had fallen into disrepair. And Wild Goose Church opened last May with about a dozen congregants. It's grown to upwards of 30 who come from miles around, drawn by Lacey's new approach to old traditions.

LACEY: We took the pews out and put rocking chairs in. We took the pulpit furniture out and built a fireplace. And it's all fiddle and banjo music and singing old-time songs and very casual worship.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

HARRIS: Lacey had a career in music before he decided to go to seminary school in Indiana at the age of 38. Known as one of the best clawhammer banjo players around, he cradles the instrument in his lap and weaves music into the discussion with his congregants, who sit with him in a circle.

LACEY: One of the things that I've tried to get away from with Wild Goose is the performance and audience relationship that I had seen in so many traditional church worship services. And so we have discussions. You know, we read some scripture and everybody participates. I learned early on that just 'cause I had a seminary education did not mean that I knew as much about scripture or theology as a lot of the people sitting in the pews.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

HARRIS: Lacey smiles at the dark lines on the shining oak floor where wooden pews used to be, enshrined remnants of the church's past. On a rainy Tuesday night, around 18 people gather here, the majority not Presbyterian. They meet on Tuesdays to avoid competition with Sunday churches. Some drove over an hour to get here. Most are carrying large crocks of food. Long tables and chairs quickly fill the hall. Utensils appear, and soon there's a full potluck underway.

SUSAN SLATE: It's excessively different, but in a good way.

HARRIS: Susan Slate teaches preschool 40 miles away in Blacksburg.

SLATE: I just really love the service. It's very meditative and calming and relaxing and just sets the tone for my week in a positive way. You can talk. It's discussion-based. It's Appalachian-based, so taking communion out of mason jars, having a banjo, playing in guitars, the bluegrass music, rocking chairs. You know, just come and sit a spell. You know, that sort of thing.

HARRIS: Congregants are invited to bring their instruments. Fiddle player Mac Traynor, a cabinet maker, attended this church in its last incarnation before it closed down in 2012. Now he comes here to worship.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA EAT AT THE WELCOME TABLE")

MAC TRAYNOR: I'm gonna eat at the welcome table. Oh, yes, I'm gonna eat at the welcome table some of these days.

HARRIS: Lacey named the church Wild Goose for his ambitious quest to build a new congregation in an era of declining church attendance. He says the name also evokes Celtic traditions at the root of Appalachian culture.

LACEY: In Celtic Christianity, the symbol for the Holy Spirit is the wild goose rather than a dove because they feel that it's more powerful, and it's wilder, and there's a little sense of humor with it. And a goose will come up and bite you right in the seat of the pants exactly like the Holy Spirit will.

HARRIS: For NPR News, I'm Robbie Harris in Floyd County, Va.

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