[Trinity Episcopal Church – Arrington, Virginia] How does a small Episcopal Church with a total membership of just over 50 parishioners offer hospitality to a Goliath-sized musical festival, drawing a crowd of 25,000 who arrive not just for the day but for four days and four music-filled nights? Trinity Episcopal Church in Arrington, Virginia, not only met the giant but welcomed and embraced it in ways that leave no doubt about the truth of the sign at the gate: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!
Trinity Episcopal Church in Arrington is like many of the churches in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia: historic, family-sized, with a heart as big as the mountain sky. The 1830 brick church is located on four acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, between Lynchburg and Charlottesville. A carefully tended graveyard includes tombstones dating back to the 1830s as well as new plots and a scatter garden. Magnificent oaks populate the property, offering grace and stately dignity to the red brick gem situated at the highest point of the gentle slope.
Adjacent to the church is Oak Ridge Estate, a vast property of nearly 5,000 acres, with a 50-room mansion and numerous outbuildings, including a chapel and a former train station. Over the years, the property has been home to merchants, farmers, and a Wall Street business tycoon. In recent years, Oak Ridge has served as a venue for horse races, Camp Jeep, community festivals, and numerous weddings and private parties.
The largest event to date, however, was the recent Lockn’ Music Festival. The event featured nearly 30 bands, including greats like John Fogerty and The Black Crowes as well as jam bands, Widespread Panic and Furthur. (Think R & B and lots of tie-dye.)
When preparations for the music festival began to manifest in the form of added fencing, widened expanses on nearby gravel roads, fiber optic cable installation, and imported lighting, Trinity’s new priest-in-charge, the Rev. Mark Furlow and his vestry members worked with festival organizers to provide a safe space. From the beginning, Furlow, who also is technical director of the theatre at Lynchburg College, knew Trinity would be a welcoming presence. “We don’t need to be the church cowering in the corner,” he told a local reporter. “That’s not who we are. We’re a church that’s lively, active, we care about local people. We care about guests that are coming our way from across the country.”
The existing AA chapter at the church offered a logical relationship. The church provided a safe space—and coffee for several AA meetings each day. Soberlockn’ welcomed upwards of 350 people to church grounds throughout the course of the four-day festival.
Worship is a natural part of the rhythm of church life. With parishioners camping out on church grounds, days began with Morning Prayer at 9:30 and ended with Compline in the evenings. While the evening services tended to be populated mostly by the church community and friends, the Morning Prayer services and a Sunday Eucharist service welcomed visitors from as far afield as Illinois as well as some from just down the road—one, a cradle Episcopalian from nearby Altavista, Virginia, said he felt welcomed home to the familiar language of his childhood. In addition to formal worship, a newly created labyrinth offered place and space for spiritual meditation, along with a pamphlet to provide guidance for labyrinth newbies. PrayerLockn’ fed the members of the church community and welcomed festival goers alike.
An additional partnership generated WaterLockn’. The James River Float Company ran buses to a nearby swimming hole on the property of Trinity parishioners William and Eve Yagel. Mason Basten, owner of the for-profit float company, donated a portion of its proceeds to Trinity’s Outreach Projects: a feeding program for local school children and a clean water initiative in Haiti. Festival-goers arrived at the church to catch a shuttle and returned an hour (sometimes two) later, refreshed, clean, and ready for the next set of music.
Parishioners at Trinity took shifts to help with promotion of SoberLockn’ and WaterLockn’. They invited visitors to walk the labyrinth and led tours of the historic church. Adults and children helped with worship and prepared meals together. They greeted visitors and answered questions. Several families, including the priest and his wife, camped out on the church grounds. Others filtered in and out from nearby homes. The community discovered each other in the process of welcoming others into their midst.
Throughout the four dizzying days of traffic, 25,000 concertgoers, and music that played well into the starlit nights, Trinity locked arms and held onto one another. In that spirit of love, they embraced all who came to their door. And on Sunday morning, the last day of the festival, the congregation in full force, joined by a handful of visitors from across the road, sang together the words that so many visitors to SoberLockn’, PrayerLockn’, and WaterLockn’ knew to be true:
There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place,
And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord;
There are sweet expressions on each face,
And I know they feel the presence of the Lord.
— Nina Vest Salmon is a lay member of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, a deputy to General Convention, a member of the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop and the State of the Church CCAB.