This article was written by the Rev. Canon Connor Gwin.
In the early afternoon, after a day of office work, three Diocesan staff members piled into a car and set out on Interstate 81, heading south. We were bound for Grace House on the Mountain, a mountain mission center 175 miles from the Diocesan Office, that embodies the missional heart and history of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.
Founded in the early 1900’s by the Episcopal Deaconesses, Grace House is older than the official start of the Diocese. The work of Grace House began when several Deaconesses walked into the coalfields of Southwestern Virginia for the sake of impoverished and needy in the name of Christ. The Grace House website says that the Deaconesses “served as midwives, taught hygiene and nutrition classes, sponsored women's auxiliaries and quilting groups, settled disputes in the community, led worship services at the local church, and taught music classes.”
The work of Grace House continued after the Order of Deaconesses was ended in the Episcopal Church. For decades, Grace House has served the needs of the people of Appalachia.
The primary expression of this work is vital home improvement projects completed by workgroups. These workgroups span all ages, multiple denominations, and a wide stretch of geography with some groups annually traveling from New York, Pennsylvania, and beyond to serve the people of the area.
With this rich history in mind, Canon Mark Furlow (Canon to the Ordinary and Chief Operating Officer), Wendy Moses (Diocesan Controller), and I journeyed south. The three-hour trip was filled with beautiful mountain views and a stunning sunset.
When we arrived on top of Sandy Ridge, outside of St. Paul, we were greeted with a feast prepared by Anita Boyd, Executive Director of Grace House. Anita and her husband, Jerry, are the heart and soul of Grace House. Anita originally worked as an assistant to the former director after she was personally impacted by the work of Grace House. When the former director retired, Anita stepped in as Executive Director. She has been a consistent presence in our Diocese for over a decade.
In our conversation over dinner, we discussed the great work being done by Grace House and the powerful witness of the ministry to the rest of the Episcopal Church. At our most recent Annual Convention, Canon Stephanie Spellers, the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Reconciliation, Evangelism, and Creation Care recalled a trip she took to Grace House while she was a professor at General Seminary in New York City. She remembered the conversations with Anita and the work groups who were staying at Grace House. Stephanie Spellers lit up when she talked about the Gospel being lived out in such a tangible way with the work of Grace House and the people it impacts.
Grace House is a beacon of what the missional church can be.
After dinner and full of the wonderful meal (especially Anita's famous Honey Bun Cake), we retreated to our overnight accommodations. Wendy Moses stayed in Smith Cottage, a wonderful cabin available for personal retreats and getaways. Canon Furlow and I walked the few steps from the dining room to the newly built bunkhouse.
The fire in the stove was warm. The bunk mattresses were fluffy and new. As we turned out the lights, I thought back to the number of people who have spent the night at Grace House and the innumerable lives that have been impacted by the work of that place.
The next morning we got to work.
Wendy worked with Anita to do some financial tasks and bookkeeping. Canon Mark scanned historical pictures from the Grace House archives and measured the dining room to create a new, state-of-the-art video conferencing space for meetings. I worked to update the Grace House website and online presence to attract new work groups and connect with longtime friends of Grace House.
After working through the morning, I sat down to interview Anita for an upcoming episode of the Diocesan podcast, Y(our)Story. The podcast format is the same for each interview as I sit down with Diocesan leaders, both lay and clergy, to hear the stories of God’s movement in Southwestern Virginia. I asked Anita to tell me a story of God’s call on her life, the story she finds most challenging in scripture, and a story that is giving her life from her work at Grace House.
She broke into tears several times as she told me story after story of the people she has helped through her work at Grace House. Canon Mark and Wendy, who were listening in, were brought to tears too by the passion in Anita’s voice as she talked about the mission of Grace House as her own life’s calling.
At the end of the interview, we packed up our belongings and prepared to head home to Roanoke, but not before asking Anita for a copy of the recipe for her Honey Bun Cake.
It is clear from our time there and the stories we heard that the work of Grace House is transformative for those who are the recipients of the help and for those who render it. The summer is already filling up, but there are still weeks and weekends available for workgroups in the spring and fall.
Every parish in our Diocese should experience the life-changing mission of Grace House.