An old man stood up in the rough wooden tabernacle, feet shuffling through the cedar shavings on the ground. "Show me the path where I should go, Lord," he read from a Bible, his voice barely rising above the drone of insects.
One by one, watermen rose to thank God for getting them through countless storms. Times have been hard here for decades, and the past year brought a hurricane and a winter that iced islanders in for a couple of weeks. And so on the final day of the 117th Smith Island Camp meeting, an annual Methodist revival, they also prayed for renewal.
A woman looked up at the rafters and started singing a hymn softly: "Jesus, Jesus . . . there's just something about that name . . . like the fragrance after the rain."
Smith Island, a marshy cluster of islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, has always been vulnerable -- to weather, to erosion, to the fickle economics of the bay. Yet the 285 islanders stand firm: When Hurricane Isabel bore down last September, about 60 of them refused an order to leave.
They know the odds against keeping their island alive. Every year, they lose people to the mainland, or to death.
Surrounded as they are by water, they have long relied on the Chesapeake's crabs and oysters. As those dwindle, so does the community. Now there are empty shells of houses, worn by wind and rain. A road that once led to clusters of homes stops dead, overgrown by the marsh.
And yet, "seems like when camp meeting's going on here, the whole town's got a different outlook on things," said lifelong resident Wes Bradshaw. "When you meet people in the road, they're more jollier, more smiling."
A century ago, hundreds of people would sail to Smith Island and stay in tents around the tabernacle grove, crowding into the outdoor chapel to shout, stamp their feet, shake and sing and pray. The Methodist church still binds the people, but now many work through camp meeting week and come to worship just in the evenings and on Sundays.
At one of the Sunday morning services this month, a trio of singers from Tennessee turned on synthesizers and microphones and belted out gospel. People jumped up from the wooden benches, clapping and singing along: "Sometimes the miracle starts with whatever you have left."
As Hurricane Isabel barreled toward the East Coast, Maryland officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for Smith Island. Jennings Evans, a 73-year-old former waterman, greeted a state trooper at his front door. "We've been out here in these storms since the 1600s," he said. "We've got the faith that as long as we're trying to do right, someone wants to keep us here."
Winds of more than 100 miles an hour were forecast, and when the officer turned to leave, "he looked kind of sad," Evans said.
The storm hit Smith Island's wetlands and three small towns with less force than expected, knocking down some crab shanties and soaking living-room carpets -- but the next day, the sun was out again. Everyone was fine.
Some old-timers say there's nothing like a hurricane for bringing out the crabs the next season. And this summer, sure enough, has been a little easier on the island's crabbers.
For generations, the island has lived by the ebb and flow of the bay. Men dredged for oysters and scraped for soft crabs. Women picked the crabs, singing hymns as they worked.
But many now are looking beyond the water for their future. In the 1800s, most islanders were farmers. Then land eroded. Today, as watermen find it harder to get by and young couples leave to start anew somewhere else, maybe it's time for the next change, said the Rev. Rick Edmund, the island's lone pastor.
A Gentle Rebirth
Old asbestos siding is still nailed to Laureen Watjen and Steve Dunlap's house in Ewell, one of the island's towns, and inside, it looks as if a storm ripped through. Dunlap tore out walls and ceilings, opening the place up.
It will be years before it's done -- the kitchen floor is dirt right now -- but Watjen can see it all clearly, her stained-glass panels letting the sun shine in under a cathedral ceiling.
"It's going to be so incredible," she said. She visited a friend on the island about a decade ago, bought a house for $25,000 and has persuaded more than a handful of other people to buy houses on Smith, too.
While some outsiders move in, only to face a winter of isolation and head back to the city, people like Watjen and Dunlap visit Smith Island and fall in love. They were married in the back yard of their house and have settled in for life, they said.
Some investors are betting that it's only a matter of time until the island is transformed into a destination, a place to summer or retire.
Watjen said she thinks that it will attract more artists, people like her, drawn by inexpensive housing and by the delicate light over the ragged expanses of wild marshland.
"I love change -- just love it," she said. "You never know what's going to evolve out of it."
Pastor Rick, as Edmund is known, believes the island might be able to start up some kind of cottage industry, such as pottery or weaving. He's been eyeing the old Smith Island Motel, a small wooden building that has been empty for a couple of years. He imagines it full of visitors going to restaurants, buying gifts, renting kayaks from him.
All this talk about expensive homes and eco-tourism and this and that is unsettling to some who love Smith Island's culture -- the eight-layer cakes the women bake, the crab shanties clinging to the water's edge, the dialect rough as oyster shells, the life built around family, the bay and the church.
"One of the things you kept hearing this morning in the testimonial was, 'We don't want this to end,' " said Duke Marshall, who grew up working on the water but left for college and a business on the mainland. He comes back every weekend and owns one of the island's few stores, a general store famous for its crab cakes. "I don't think it will end. I think it's changing."
Around him at the recent camp meeting, people hugged relatives and friends they hadn't seen all year. Light bulbs hung from the rafters, and fans turned the hot air.
And Edmund, the long-single preacher -- whom all the island ladies used to tease, because how could you date when everyone is a parishioner? -- stood up to offer his thanks.
After Hurricane Isabel, a woman came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She and Edmund met on the ferry to the island and, well, things just clicked.
"It took a disaster to bring them two together!" Bradshaw said, laughing that a man originally from Ohio and a woman from Nebraska would find each other this way. They got married June 12 in the church by the tabernacle, and they invited the whole island to celebrate with them.
"I've got a new blessing here," Edmund said. "Bonnie. We're starting our life together."