Great Smith Island
October 8, 2000
On Sunday, September 17 the pastor and members of the board of
trustees tried to have me arrested. The Maryland State Police flew here
to investigate a "threat." A letter had been sent through the
mail. During the morning service two more letters were taped to the
outside of the church. All of them said exactly the same thing:
DEVOTIONS UPON EMERGENT OCCASIONS
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were:
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls;
it tolls for thee.
Everyone now knows that I was the person who mailed the letter and
put the posters on the church. The poem was written by John Donne. Or
perhaps I should correctly identify him as Reverend John Donne. He was
born in London in 1572 and went on to become one of the greatest poets
in the history of the English language. Donne also received a doctor of
divinity from Cambridge University. He was considered one of the
outstanding preachers of his time. During his career he served as Royal
Chaplain to King James, chaplain to the British embassy in Germany, and
finally as Dean of St. Paulís in London. He was in line for an
appointment as bishop when he died in 1631.
It should be clear to everyone in this community that this poem is
not a threat to the pastor, the board of trustees or the congregation.
When I mailed it and put it on the church it never occurred to me that
anyone could interpret it that way. What I wanted to do was make the
people of this community think. I was certain that Pastor Rick would
recognize the poem and take it for its proper meaning. Instead the state
police were called. The only reason I wasnít arrested was because the
investigating officer had enough education and sense to see the poem for
what it really was.
So what does the poem mean?
ĎNo man is an island, entire of itself;" Even though we
are individuals, we are each a part of something greater than ourselves,
be it a community, church or humanity. "If a clod be washed away
by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well
as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were:" When the
larger community we all belong to becomes less, we all become less. It
does not matter if the person lost is rich or poor, great or humble.
Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in
mankind." We cannot become so independent, so self-involved
that we are unaffected by the loss of one of our own.. So many of us
make sacrifices for the good of the community. Whether you are tithing
for the church, volunteering for the fire company, baking a cake for the
PTA, or traveling to Annapolis with the Watermanís association, you do
so for the good of the community.
"And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it
tolls for thee." Reverend Donne was referring specifically to
when the bells of a church ring before a funeral. Since my return to
Smith Island almost ten years ago, I have heard the funeral bells of
this church toll many times. Every time I hear the funeral bells I think
of this poem. I know Smith Island has been diminished, and so have I
because I have lost another friend, another neighbor or family member.
This poem is not a threat; it is a wakeup call. We are dying. Every
day, little by little, this community is fading away. I had heard that
Bev and Gene Guy were having financial problems on top of Geneís
illness and couldnít afford to fix their furnace. Their situation had
been brought to the attention of the church, and the church had done
little or nothing. Since then I have learned that not everything was as
I thought it was. The church apparently has money problems of its own.
On average between 40 and 50 people regularly attend church. There are
about 180 people who live in Ewell. Why do only 30% of the population
attend church? What about the other 70 %? Why arenít they here? These
questions get to the larger reason for my actions on September 17.
To put it bluntly, a lot of people just donít feel welcome at this
church. I am one of them. Since I posted Reverend Donneís poem on the
church a lot of people have been very, very angry with me. I expected
that. Surprisingly, a lot people have told me they are glad I did it.
Many people in this community feel that this has been long overdue. Some
of them wish they had the nerve to say what they feel about this place.
But they are afraid. Afraid that people will talk about them, shun them,
or not do business with them. And they are right to be afraid because
that is what happened to me.
This past April when Steve Eades tried to get his beer license, one
member of the board of trustees sent a loud and clear message: "If
you ainít against it you have got to be for it." One person in
this congregation told me that they didnít really see the harm of
Steve selling beer, but they werenít going to say anything because
they were afraid to go against the church.
Terry Swann, who edits the Smith Island Times, told me she had
considered putting Reverend Donneís poem in the paper, but she was
afraid. "You donít take on the church in this town."
Several months ago one of the leaders of this church declared that
the reason this person had a heart attack, that person had a stroke, or
another person had an accident was because they defied the church and
stood up for Steve. If you donít think this sends a clear message,
look around you on a typical Sunday. People are staying away in large
numbers. So now the church has no money for streetlights or to help
I canít help what the pastor and congregation of this church
doesnít know. I canít help that words and ideas frighten so many of
you. I canít help it when you close your minds and hearts to what
others believe and think. This church and the people who make up that
church have a right to their opinions. But people who think and feel
differently have a right to theirs as well.
For almost 200 years the church has acted as the government of this
island. For a long time it worked quite well. Smith Island was
practically cut off from the rest of the world. Things have changed. Our
young people are leaving, and most of them will not be coming back to
take their place in the community. Most of our population is elderly,
and we lose more of them every year. There are 157 people on Smith
Island over the age of 50; only 142 under. You canít look at numbers
like that and feel good about the future of our island.
Earlier this summer a film crew was here doing a story about Smith
Island. I heard somebody down at the store complain that all they wanted
to take pictures of were the run down houses and crumbling shanties.
What you donít see is how much these things really stand out to
The church is not at fault for all of these problems. But whatever
the church used to do to keep this island going doesnít seem to be
working any more. To be a leader you have to look at the larger picture.
What if we lose the last general store serving Ewell and Rhodes Point?
Some of you have boats and cars on the mainland and freezers where
groceries can be stored. But what about those who donít? Are you
willing to make your friends and neighbors suffer over the issue of a
license to sell beer and wine? It isnít enough to talk about what you
are against. If you want to be a leader you have to talk about what you
The church claims to be the government of this island. Last spring a
petition against the beer license was circulated and signed by over 170
people. Part of the petition stated, "we have never seen the need
to separate church and state." Yet the same petition says a
government should be "of, by and for the people." So in this
town you donít get a vote unless you belong to the church. What about
the 70% of the people who donít come to church? Donít we get a vote?
Several years ago Reverend Maxwell tried to start a small town
council to address some of the problems we are facing. An announcement
was made in church and a notice was placed in the church bulletin. No
posters were placed at the store or post office. It was as though this
little group of church people wanted to keep it all to themselves. That
sent a message to me, and a lot of other people. If you donít go to
church you arenít wanted at this meeting. I actually had one person in
this church tell me that I shouldnít be allowed to serve on the
council because I didnít belong to the church. And partly because of
attitudes like that the council met six or seven times, then died
because of a lack of interest. Nothing was accomplished, and things have
I believe the church has an important role to play in the community.
The same is true for the Fire Company, PTA, watermanís association,
oil dock, Rukeís and the Driftwood. These are the main institutions
that support this island.
Churches make poor governments. They are not democratic institutions
open to all regardless of religion, race or sex. The Founding Fathers of
this country were deeply religious. Yet they understood that a
government of, by and for all the people had to be separate from all
religion. This is what Thomas Jefferson wrote regarding separation of
church and state: "proscribing any citizen as
unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him incapacity of being
called to offices of trust or emolument, unless he profess or renounce
this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injudiciously of those
privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow-citizens,
he has a natural rightÖ" In other words, one need not be a member
of the church in order to serve on the town council.
What is needed is a body outside of all the existing institutions
that currently exist in Ewell. A town council should be created to
fulfill the mission Reverend Maxwell envisioned. The council should be
comprised of permanent residents. An effort should be made to include
youth and teenagers because they are the future. One of its most
important functions will be to provide information to the residents of
the island. Meetings should be held on a regular basis and be open to
all, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. An executive
council of qualified individuals should be appointed. The council should
provide a contact point for news media and county, state and federal
officials. If enough people are interested, I will organize a meeting. I
do not intend to let what was started on September 17 die from a lack of
Information is necessary for the function of a free and democratic
society. Toward that end Shelly and I have created The Halcyon,
an online newsletter that will cover important events on the island. The
Halcyon welcomes responsible articles and opinions from all,
regardless of their political or religious persuasion. Regrettably, The
Halcyon will be available only to those who have Internet hookups.
It is our hope that one day we will be able to afford a print version of
Anyone wishing to contact me about either the town council or The
Halcyon may do so either in person, by phone at 410-425-5700, or by
e-mail at Onelhitch@aol.com.