Sunday-evening hymn sing a ‘peak’ experience

Column by Jim Bishop

MINERAL COUNTY, W.Va. – The phone call from Uncle Phil Dayton, my mom’s youngest brother, came weeks before the event, a personal invitation, and I thought, yes, why not? We pass this way but once.

I’m glad we decided to make the two-and-a-half-hour trip to suburban Short Gap. It was an inspiring experience; a musical head dunking that revived our spirits.

Each year in August, a community gospel hymn sing takes place in an expansive, outdoor setting on a ridge in Fairview Valley overlooking the homestead where the late Robert P. and Rhoda Yoder Dayton raised a family of nine in a diversified dairy farm operation, my mom, Ann Dayton Bishop, 86, being the oldest sibling.

Phil, who is half-time associate pastor at Pinto (Md.) Mennonite Church, told me this was the 25th year for the outdoor sing. It began inauspiciously as part of Grandma Dayton’s 80th birthday celebration in 1981 and took off from there. The last seven years the program has been held at the Dayton family’s “True Vine” site on a scenic knoll overlooking the original homeplace.

Many of the same groups and individuals lend their musical talents each year; promotion is largely word-of-mouth. Most attendees come from within an hour’s driving distance. Around 450 people showed up this year (600 was the highest figure several years ago). A wagon pulled by tractor transported children and other persons from their vehicles to the gathering area.

This being the first time for Anna and me to attend, we weren’t sure what to expect. Uncle Phil, who emceed the program, wasn’t completely certain either, as this was the first time that attendees would be active participants, lifting their voices in song, rather than everything coming from the platform. And, this wasn’t a gathering of mostly Mennonites accustomed to singing four-part harmony, acapella-style.

The weather couldn’t have been more ideal, which added to the expectant and buoyant atmosphere. The program wasn’t long under way very before one could sense a corporate yearning to worship and praise the Creator in this verdant outdoor setting.

Beyond this, as Phil noted in his welcome, all participants serve on a volunteer basis; no one is paid. Even the ice cream served afterwards was provided by a couple from the Pinto congregation.

The program, which ran two hours, perked right along with a variety of music and participants, including soloists Alex Hall (13 years old), Ed Elza, Amber Bokelman (now living in Staunton); The Browns, a family threesome from Keyser, W.Va.; and the “True Vine Quartet” who sound like they’ve sung and performed together for years – which they have – but its members only come together from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida to sing at this annual event. Kahyla Hochkinson, violinist, performed solos and during the offertory.

My brother Michael – we call him “Rev. Mikey” – is minister of music and worship at the large Blooming Glen Mennonite congregation in eastern Pennsylvania. He led about 20 minutes of non-stop choruses and hymns – most familiar, a few obviously new. Mike led most of the tunes by rote, introducing a line and having the group play it back. Things started rather hesitantly, but gained momentum as people responded to Mike’s enthusiastic direction.

“Leading group a cappella singing is scary as all get out, but deeply rewarding,” Mike told me later. “I wrestle with feelings of doubt, fear and humility as I attempt to invite folks into an emotional, spiritual and pleasurable journey of possibility. I am never certain where we are headed, but am often reassured that the time and effort was well invested. Risks are taken and rewards abound.”

A particularly moving part of the evening was a previously unannounced offering. Phil told the group of a local elderly couple who will have difficulty paying their utility bill this winter with the exorbitant rise in fuel costs. “They didn’t ask anyone for help. They don’t know we’re doing this,” Phil said. “Don’t feel you have to give, but if you do, give from the heart.” He announced later more than $1,300 was given toward this special need.

The program concluded with a candlelighting ceremony.. By now, it was completely dark, and it was inspiring to see persons lighting individual candles until the entire area was aglow, as the True Vine Quartet and Mike sang several selections.

A giant meltdown followed as lines formed for different choices of ice cream, cookies and drink. Conversation flowed freely as people lingered in an afterglow of harmonious accord. Given the late hour, I was glad we’d decided earlier to stay overnight and return to Harrisonburg on Monday.

In some ways, the melodious evening seemed a small foretaste of the life to come. After all, it did take place off a country road in “Almost Heaven, West Virginia.”


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