With errant clangs from disoriented bell ringers and the soaring disharmony of a pickup choir that rarely meets, yesterday's Sunday morning service at a Middleburg church had a different sound. And that, said parishioners gathered on a cloudy summer morning, was just the reason they had come.
As they've done annually for nearly 30 years, the Catholics and the Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Methodists and the Presbyterians bypassed the comfortable routines of their separate services in the rural reaches west of Washington and came together at Middleburg Baptist Church to recall and commemorate their shared pasts.
Several of the Virginia congregations worshiped together in the early 19th century at the site in a communal space known as the Free Church.
"They had circuit-rider preachers. They came every week," said Wendy Oesterling, the music director at the neighboring Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
Then the church apparently burned down, and in the mid-19th century, religious leaders built a replacement, which has since become Middleburg Baptist. In the years that followed, parishioners began to scatter to their own denominations. Still, regardless of its designation as a Baptist place of worship, the small brick church has remained a symbol of that earlier unity, something that many of the 100 people who joined in yesterday's services said continues to inspire.
"Somebody had an idea all churches could worship in one building, and it worked," said the Rev. Joseph P. Biniek of St. Stephen the Martyr, the Roman Catholic church in Middleburg where the Kennedys sometimes worshipped. "If the worldview is communion, what's the great sin? The great sin is drawing lines -- them, us," he said in yesterday's sermon.
Mary Humphrey, 85, sat toward the back. She used to race her horse across the fields outside Middleburg gathering her family's cows for milking. Her mother was the music director at Middleburg Baptist, but she has followed her husband to another church and returns only rarely.
"I was raised in this church. It's a joy to be here," Humphrey said.
Oesterling spent the morning barking at members of her bell choir, perched on the white balcony where blacks were once segregated, ordering the choir to adjust to its tight surroundings and concentrate on producing the most heavenly sounds it could.
"You can do better than that. That was just awful," she said before the service to the eight women and two men, before riffing on the benefits of shaking and lifting the bells to close out one of the numbers. "Do that last chord again, and do it with wiggle. I forgot all about wiggle. I love wiggle. . . . They'll love it!"
Four children from the Saints in Praise gospel choir at Shiloh Baptist Church walked up the aisle midway through the service, tentative voices rising.
"The Gospel train is comin', it's comin' around the bend," they sang. "Nothin' on this train to lose but everything to gain."
Brianna Davenport, 14, one of the Saints, said that colds were ravaging some vocalists and that others from her church didn't come.
"The four of us aren't the best ones, and we're all sick and stuff, which makes it worse," Davenport said. "We're used to having the other ones around us to make us sound stronger."
Katie Leach-Kemon, 21, who grew up attending Middleburg Baptist, said she was stirred by the Saints' soulful performance.
"They really just light up the room," Leach-Kemon said. "We don't have that kind of music here. Not to dis our choir, but they don't really move around."