Posts Tagged 'Laura M'

Assignment #2- My Trip to Williamsburg Christian Church

Since I have been a student at William and Mary I have been attending Williamsburg Presbyterian Church.  As I explain to younger students interested in the church, going to WPC gives me a home away from home in Williamsburg.  My home church in Alexandria and WPC are both part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  I am no expert in church politics or theology, but what I have seen of the PC(USA) is fairly consistent.  The worship services in churches I have attended are fairly mainstream and traditional.  There are hymns accompanied by organ or piano, a choir of adults from the church, a pastor in robes delivering a Scripture-based sermon, and other rituals such as prayers, Communion, and an offering.

My church at home is mostly families, with some retirees.  The transient nature of the area brings a lot of families in and out of the church, and there are few families or couples who have attended for more than 20 years.  My family, attending since 1992, is one of the older families around.  Often middle-aged couples leave to retire elsewhere in the country.  WPC, however, is overwhelmingly made up of retirees.  There are some families with children and a spattering of college students, but the majority of the congregation has grown children and is retired.  Both at home and in Williamsburg, the congregation is almost entirely white.  The income levels in my home congregation vary, but in my experience at WPC the income levels are mostly upper-middle class.

My decision to attend WPC occurred even before I moved to campus.  In some questionnaire for the College I had checked my religion as ‘Presbyterian,’ so I received a letter from Westminster Fellowship, or WesFel.  WesFel is a Presbyterian, college fellowship group sponsored by WPC.  Joining WesFel and WPC were automatic for me.  They were extensions of my church life at home.  The other students in WesFel mostly come from PC(USA) churches and have had similar experiences.

So when I thought about getting out of my college bubble, I decided to try a different church.  More importantly, I decided to try a different kind of church that isn’t next to the College.  Several of the churches on Richmond and Jamestown Roads have college groups and appeal to college students in some way.  I chose to get away from this bubble and try Williamsburg Christian Church on John Tyler Lane.  This church isn’t far from William and Mary and I pass it on the way to my friend’s off-campus apartment.  I enlisted another college-aged friend from WPC to come with me and we planned to attend their Sunday morning service.

I looked at the WCC website Saturday to find out what time the service is.  When I poked around I discovered that the church is nondenominational, and I suspected that the service was in a more contemporary style.  The website described that the church did not seek to impose beliefs on its members, but the ‘core beliefs’ section of the site was fairly extensive.  The theology was nondenominational and very focused on the Bible.  In my PC(USA) church experience, congregations are relatively reluctant to talk about controversial or political issues.  When people do bring up issues such as hell, abortion, and Creationism, Presbyterians usually get very uncomfortable and wishy-washy.  I was curious and a little apprehensive about a church with a more literal interpretation of the Bible.

Sunday morning, I first struggled with what to wear to WCC.  At home my Dad goes to a church with a contemporary style service and high income levels, and the congregation is pretty well-dressed.  I’ve attended other contemporary services where people were pretty casual, though, so I wasn’t sure what I would encounter.  I compromised and stuck with an outfit I could wear to church either here or at home: an a-line skirt, a solid color shirt, a cardigan, and simple heels.  Smart casual, perhaps.  My friend and I had carefully planned to arrive just in time for the service to start, so we could sneak in without having to make small talk with a well-meaning but overly curious church member. When we arrived at 10:45AM we went straight into the sanctuary and to seats near the back on the end.

The worship space was casual, as were the church members.  Rather than a big sanctuary, the space had a low ceiling and linked, padded chairs instead of pews.  I was maybe a touch overdressed, as there were plenty of people in jeans or casual slacks.  Like in other churches I have attended, the congregation was almost entirely white, but there seemed to be a much greater difference in age than at WPC.  There was a pretty even mix between high schoolers and people in their eighties and nineties, even though there were maybe 60 churchgoers in attendance.

The worship service began with about fifteen minutes of songs led by a worship band comprising two women singing, a man on guitar, and another man on a drum set.  The words to the songs were projected on a screen at the front rather than being in a traditional hymnal.  Around 11AM the music ended and the pastor stepped up, launching into his sermon almost immediately.  He spoke for about half an hour, longer than my usual sermons, and seamlessly incorporated various scripture readings into the lesson.  I had anticipated a harsh, potentially political message, but I was wrong.  The sermon was sincere, well-informed, and passionate.  The pastor talked about leadership within the church and how sometimes it can be misguided or not up to the task, but that Jesus was always watching and cared about each member of his ‘flock.’  After the sermon there was a simple Communion, an offering, and then a quick prayer and song to close out the service, which ended promptly at 11:59AM.  The only thing that really seemed ‘weird’ to me was between the sermon and Communion when a member of the church got up to play an animated video about how the light of Christ is just around the corner even when things seem dark.  The message didn’t quite fit with the sermon, and the style was really out of place.  Nonetheless, I was surprised by how much I liked the experience.

There were certain limitations to what I could learn while I was there.  I purposely avoided talking to people excepting the friend I brought with me.  In my effort not to offend anyone there by revealing that I was more interested in studying them than worshipping with them I just snuck in before the service and back out when it was done.  In a place like a church, an intimate community, not talking to anyone really limited my impression.

In addition to stepping out of my religious bubble, going to Williamsburg Christian Church got me out of my college bubble.  Going to a church downtown keeps me around college students and retirees.  Honestly, we college kids mostly just interact with each other at the church.  This congregation was more intimate and had a broader demographic.  I didn’t exactly ask other people there what their annual income was, but the casual atmosphere is definitively different from the more formal church I attend.  Even though I was out of my element, new, and a little apprehensive, I felt very comfortable.  This was a pleasant surprise in the Williamsburg community.

Reflections on Rowe, Ellis, and Spears

Rowe and Ellis

Rowe’s chapter was about African-American life in Williamsburg from 1865-1945.  In the eighty years’ worth of history Rowe discussed economic, housing, and political conditions from the Reconstruction through the Restoration (which is a ridiculous phrase on paper).  Before the Restoration, as Rowe describes, Williamsburg was an ‘ordinary’ Southern town and conditions for African-Americans aligned with what was happening in the rest of the South, including Jim Crow laws.  Unsurprisingly, most African-Americans found work as laborers or servants for the white population, which they outnumbered at many points.  What interested me was how much the black community invested in education.  Rowe makes it clear that a lot of the money required just to operate grade schools for black children came from the community itself, especially through churches.  The history of Bruton Heights, which a few Google searches revealed is now owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, fascinated me.  While it was only around for a couple of decades as a school for African-Americans and community center, it seemed extremely relevant.  Although a lot of the money came from the City and the Rockefeller family, it seemed to be important as a symbol of self-sufficiency in the Jim Crow era.

I especially found the Rockefeller family’s involvement interesting.  Rowe and Ellis both noted that the family, not from Williamsburg, was more progressive than the town and kept facilities in Colonial Williamsburg integrated.  In addition, family land and money went to Bruton Heights, and they supported integration when it came to the community via federal law in later decades.  However, the Restoration and development in Williamsburg around Colonial Williamsburg and the tourism industry contributed to harsher segregation and discrimination in the community.  Rowe notes that the vote to sell City land to become Colonial Williamsburg came from the white community, and that black landowners may not have received proper reimbursement.  While the neighborhoods had been mixed, they became segregated when people moved away from the Restoration.  In addition, the increased prosperity Williamsburg enjoyed in the 20th century mostly went to the white community and to the new, white-dominated communities in the area.  So while Rockefeller tried to help race relations, the changes he introduced produced a more segregated society.


What piqued my interest about this chapter was how much the College contributed to the Greek community, mostly because it’s still true today.  We might not have a Mr. Steve with his big black book giving out mugs at the Leafe on credit, but the delis and other local restaurants like Sal’s are important to the College.  The image of (possibly drunk?) students wandering just off campus in search of food other than the same old stuff at the dining halls is easy to conjure.  I also appreciated learning where the name “Mama Steve” came from, assuming there’s only one!  I think the Greek community in this chapter really tied together the other groups in Williamsburg.  By adding to the hospitality industry in Williamsburg, the Greeks brought together college students, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg, and other hungry folks in town.

Project Proposal

Last weekend my parents came down to see me in a show at the College.  When I mentioned the Williamsburg Documentary Project and how this semester’s theme is retirement, my father asked my mother if she would consider retiring here.  Her response?

“If there’s a kid here.”

This got me thinking about retirees I know who live in the area.  There is a variety—some are from the area and some are not, some have family in the area and some do not, and some are heavily involved in the community and some are not.

For example, there are three women I have met while volunteering with a local Girl Scout troop.  One, the leader of the troop, is in her seventies.  Although not from the area, she moved here in 2008 to be with family.  She owns her own business and still runs it herself, in addition to being heavily involved with her church, a local Relay for Life, and running her granddaughter’s Girl Scout troop. She lives in a modest townhouse.

Another woman in her seventies is from Germany, but her husband’s business brought them to Hampton decades ago.  Their children grew up in Virginia and now live in Northern Virginia.  She and her husband retired to Williamsburg, where she takes Christopher Wren classes and does a lot of charity and cultural work.  I remember her saying that one of the reasons that she and her husband chose Williamsburg was that the grandchildren would enjoy visiting.  Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens, and other tourist attractions make the kinds happy to visit Oma and Opa.  They live in a large home within walking distance of Merchant’s Square.

A third woman is in her sixties and from New York.  I know that she is an artist and enjoys the local art community in addition to volunteering with Girl Scouts, but I do not know her well enough to know why she and her husband retired to Williamsburg.  They live in a gated community.

One last retired couple I will mention is my aunt and uncle.  They retired a few years ago and still live in the house in Maryland where they raised their children, who are now 27 and 30 and live in Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia.  They travel all the time and come to a timeshare in Williamsburg at least once a year, if not two or three times.

When considering where people retire, I cannot get my mother’s priority out of my head.  My sister and I have agreed that she’ll probably choose to live near whichever one of us has grandchildren first.  Some retirees have children or grandchildren in the area, but not all.  Although there are a decent number of jobs for young professionals in the area, but many college students I know agree that we would rather settle elsewhere for at least the next decade or so.  In addition, I know that it might be at least a decade until my generation finds any sort of permanent place to settle.  With a volatile job market I might move several times before I find something permanent.  Many of my friends are staying in academia and have no idea where that will take them in the short or long term.  My parents might not be able to know where my sister and my families will end up for a while.

So what brings non-native retirees to Williamsburg, especially if they do not have children settled permanently in the area?  When I say ‘non-native’ I exclude a fairly broad group of people from the ‘Middle Peninsula,’ or perhaps anywhere between Richmond and Norfolk.  What attracts retirees to a town otherwise dominated by tourism and a college?  If both the tourist amenities and the College are incentives, is one more significant?  Or are retirees more attracted to the gated communities and retirement homes than the ‘rest of the town’?  What made their decision different than that of my aunt and uncle, who enjoy Williamsburg but only to visit?

I am not sure where my research will take me.  I plan to start by interviewing retirees I know that fit the profile—those who both did not live in the Williamsburg area before they retired and also do not have family close by.  If they live in a gated or retirement community I would like to know what drew them to one in Williamsburg rather one in the area where they are from or where their children live if they have any.  From there I hope to find more contacts.  I think that in-person interviews might be my primary source of information at least to start.  I would also like to do more research into when and why the demographics of Williamsburg changed to include a large older, non-working population.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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