There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.Nelson Mandela
The Phone Call
My phone rang on a Sunday afternoon after church. It was Sunday April 28, the day it was officially announced that I would be the new Lead Pastor of First Saints Community Church in St. Mary’s County. I looked at my phone and saw that it was John Gatton, a lifelong, born and raised St. Mary’s County resident, about as “County” as anyone can be, a dear man, brother in Christ, and friend.
“Chris! I just saw the news. Welcome home! I can’t wait to have you back down here.”
And on the conversation went, steeped in typically wonderful St. Mary’s County hospitality. “You know we’re all here for you. You let me know if there’s anything you need. You don’t worry about a thing” I thanked John over and over again, a man whom I once fondly dubbed the Unofficial Mayor of Hollywood, MD. John is a semi-retired barber, the son and father of barbers who have all worked in the same little barber shop on Hollywood Road for three generations. John knows countless numbers of people in the County, and with a phone call can immediately connect his neighbors to just about anything you can imagine. That’s St. Mary’s in a nutshell.
Then all my thoughts began to race back 18 years to the first time I was appointed to St. Mary’s County as the Associate Pastor of Hollywood UMC. It was my very first appointment. And yes, during most of that time I could truthfully say that I lived in California and worked in Hollywood! (Go look it up if you don’t believe me.)
Like most people who end up in the County, I did not go willingly. In fact I dreaded it. There’s a common County folk saying that aptly applied to me, “People hate coming down here. But once they get here, we can’t get rid of ’em!” Well, after three years of serving there, I was appointed to my next church up the road in Upper Marlboro. But the County really didn’t leave me.
About “The County”
Compared to the rest of Maryland, St. Mary’s County is a peculiar, beautiful place filled with surprises and anomalies, and yet isolated from literally everywhere else. Recently, one resident described it to me as “The Land Time Forgot”. Most Marylanders have never been here and really don’t have any burning desire to visit, let alone live here. That’s because St. Mary’s County, the southernmost tip of the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, is at least two hours away from the hub of Central Maryland. (If we bother to even think about the County, a lot of us Marylanders mistakenly presume it’s on somewhere on the Eastern Shore!)
Situated on an extreme perimeter of the state, it’s a peninsula, not a place you’d ever travel through to get anywhere else. There are no major cities here, no sports teams, no popular vacation destinations, no must-see, must-do things that Marylanders particularly care about. And yet it has its own distinctive culture (stuffed ham and fried oyster dinners, anyone??) and history that is truly the deep heart and soul of Maryland. Most Marylanders have just forgotten that.
And yet, St. Mary’s is the Mother County of Maryland. In 1634, Leonard Calvert, son and brother of the 1st and 2nd Lords of Baltimore, with about 300 other settlers aboard The Ark and The Dove, landed and settled the colony of Maryland and became its first governor. They quickly established St. Mary’s City, which became the first capital of the Province of Maryland. They made their new home the very first place in the Americas established on religious freedom and tolerance. In fact, one of the honorific titles of St. Mary’s is “The Birthplace of Religious Freedom.”
There are 385 years of history in the County, spanning from the beginning of the American colonies, through the founding of our State and Country, key events of the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the critical supportive roles the County has played in every American war since World War II.
St. Mary’s County is also one of the fastest growing places in Maryland with– as I’ve recently discovered!– one of the most hyper-competetive real estate markets in the State. That’s because St. Mary’s County is home to the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, simply called “PAX” by local folks, which has become the Naval test flight center on the eastern seaboard, bringing in people from all over the world, military and civilian.
Through the years, however, community, tradition, history, maritime and agricultural life, miliary support, faith and family are all hallmarks of the County.
I have to admit, when I left St. Mary’s County 15 years ago, it went largely out of sight and mind from my day to day life. But it never really left my heart. There was a part of me that never left there.
So here I am again. Never, ever, in my wildest imagination did I think I’d find myself back in the Mother County. I think of all that’s happened to me since I was here last. After a divorce and marriage, two new children, three congregations with a couple of years on Conference staff thrown in, and lots of very necessary, often painful seasons of growing up to do, yes, I’m back in the County.
Still, I don’t feel like the same person whom many folks here are glad has returned. (I’m grateful folks have fond memories of me. I’ll take that, at least.) Since announcing my return, I have been quietly dreading the refrain of “Chris is coming back!” I think, “Yes, I’m coming back, but if you’re counting on the 27-year-old kid you once knew, you might be disappointed.”
Meanwhile, folks had been telling me how much the County has changed. There are more people, more stores, more homes, more traffic, etc., etc. Yes, places and people change. But could St. Mary’s County truly change all that much??
In the many times I had to travel down the nearly 2 hours from Annapolis to meet with the new church and hunt for a home before my July 1 start date, I drove around the County to re-acclimate myself. I could definitely see the new stores, the increased traffic, and more homes built. However, the true character and charm of the County I knew back then really hadn’t changed all that much. It was still good ol’ St. Mary’s County.
Perhaps the same is true for me after all. We all grow and change. Hopefully we mature in wisdom and inner strength, too. I think I can say the same for myself. Even then, when all is said and done, I am who I am, and, well, this place is what it is, too.
Returning to the Mother County after what seems like a lifetime ago, I am reminded of that old cliche that is laden with more ironic reality than I can understand: the more things change, the more they stay the same. For me, and for this County I’m loving again, that could not be more true.