Guiding Hand

The Rev. Joseph Kelly came to Hoopers Island as a pastor. But after Isabel, he was called to other, more earthly, tasks.

March 06, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

HOOPERS ISLAND - The first time the Rev. Joseph Kelly, a new minister at the age of 39, drove down the unmarked road, he asked a friend, "What am I going to do with my free time?"

This was in the summer, weeks before Tropical Storm Isabel came up the Chesapeake Bay like some scourge from the Old Testament.

This was in July, when the United Methodist Church first offered Kelly the job of leading two small churches: Hosier Memorial, on the more populated northern end of the three small islands, and tiny Hoopers Memorial, down at the southern tip, where attendance had dropped on some Sundays to just three people.

Kelly and a friend took the 32-mile drive south from Cambridge a few days before he made up his mind.

He had left a six-figure income and a construction business in 1997, convinced he was called to preach the Bible and minister to people. He had spent the most recent years at Brownsville Revival School of Ministry in Pensacola, Fla., and traveling out of the country - to Mexico, South Africa, Portugal, Jamaica, Argentina - on mission trips.

Kelly wanted to become an evangelical missionary. Southern Dorchester County was not the mission field he had in mind: The lonely curving road leading to the islands, the ancient strands of loblolly pines along the way, the swollen ditches laid out on both sides of the road like a track. It is a place where herons wade in the marsh, swans float on the Honga River, and Canada geese fly in formation over the breathtaking bay.

"It's beautiful," he said to his friend. But the island seemed isolated, "like Appalachia without the mountains," he would later say.

This, after all, was a man accustomed to a faster pace of living. His cell phone rings often, he keeps his golf bag in the back of his Jeep Grand Cherokee to play when he can, he grew up in Ocean City. He can't preach without walking around.

Most of the houses he saw that first day survived the storm: the old farmhouses in the midst of sprawling corn and soybean fields; the smaller, more modest houses and mobile homes close to the road. Marinas and family docks are still scattered up and down nearly every finger of water, and flat-bottomed oyster boats can be seen still parked in the water or abandoned in the marsh grass. Kelly was right about the crab-picking houses he saw when he guessed they are the heart of the community.

The first day he crossed the bridge and drove through Fishing Creek, there in the center of the village was the church. Across from the church, so close to the road that anyone driving by could see inside - see what was on the first-floor TV, see when the second-floor bedroom lights were off or on - was the parsonage.

Kelly moved in Aug. 10.

"I made some judgments I probably shouldn't have made," he would later say. "I thought, `Nothing will change here. Things are going to stay the same.'"

Five weeks after he took the job, Isabel stormed up the bay.

To say the storm challenged the minister's faith would not be precise. The aftermath, though, is another matter.

He rode out the storm the early morning hours of Sept. 19 at the volunteer fire chief's house, and although the two went out together on a john boat knocking on the doors of those who stayed, Kelly never feared for his safety. The waters of the Chesapeake Bay rose on the west, and the waters from the Honga River rose on the east, and the two came together in the middle and covered the road.

Kelly had heard that a new minister needs 18 months to get to know his congregation. After five weeks, he had met some of the fishermen and watermen but not nearly all, even though the population is estimated at only 100 families in Fishing Creek and 33 in Hoopersville.

The minister had been going about it slowly, taking his message to the people wherever they were. He ate his breakfasts at tiny Waterman's Cafe, where the conversation one Saturday morning was about the muskrat skinning contest at the Outdoor Show the night before. "Rev. Joe" as some folks know him - or just plain "Pastor" - asked for wheat toast so often that the waitress finally added it to the menu.

For dinner, he ate at the other restaurant on the island, Old Salty's. He gained 25 pounds meeting his flock but it was not until the days leading up to the storm that he met everyone - either leaving the island or staying put.

No one on Hoopers Island was injured the night Isabel came ashore but damage was estimated between $5 million and $10 million. Houses had to be gutted and more than 60 families moved into trailers brought in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The storm surge opened cemetery vaults, ruined drinking water wells, and washed the 150-year-old church in Hoopersville - moved from the now-uninhabited Apple Garth Island after The Great Storm of 1933 - off its foundation.

The destruction was surprising to see. And yet the mighty force of nature was not a surprise to Kelly.

What surprised him was the way the community came together.

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