Pastor Arthur Couch isn't a traditional snow bird. His annual fall pilgrimage isn't to Arizona, South Carolina or Florida. Instead, he batens down the hatches at his home, loads his truck onto a naval landing craft for a short trip back to the mainland, and then heads to Indiana.
Pastor Couch is a six-month resident on Grindstone Island, the fourth largest island of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River.
Like Pastor Couch's unorthodox snowbird excursion, the church he leads − the Grindstone United Methodist Church (Northern Flow District) − also took a unique path to its current location.
Carried piece by piece
According to historic records, in early 1890 the Rev. Alexander Shorts was given an unused church on a neighboring island. He disassembled the church, transported it piece by piece via boat, carried the materials on his back more than 300 feet from the boat landing to the church's current site, and rebuilt the structure. The first service was held in the summer of 1890.
Over the years several individuals and groups have rebuilt parts of the church, but the core of the original structure still stands. The main building on the Grindstone Island UMC campus has no running water, but a more recent carriage house to the rear has a full kitchen with running water − but no bathrooms, and a 12-year-old Christian education building has bathroom facilities, a medical exam room, and is handicap accessible. All three structures have electricity.
The church had been open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. About 15 years ago a member of the church asked, "Why couldn't the season be extended? Why do we have to close the church?" Pastor Couch said. So that lay speaker started up Praise and Prayer abbreviated services in May, September and October.
The island's residents are a mix of self-sufficient agriculturalists, city residents looking for seclusion and retired folks seeking a sense of community − the type from decades ago that doesn't often exist in today's urban settings. The island is a social leveler, Pastor Couch said; when you are on the island, no one knows what you are worth.
Along with those various backgrounds come different faith walks.
The Grindstone Island church is United Methodist, Pastor Couch said, "but we have everybody in this church. We have Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians (and) Baptists. We have a Mormon. But the thing is, in the Wesleyan tradition, we know what we agree on and we only get involved in the things we agree on."
The pieces of the whole
Pastor Couch is appointed to the church for the summer, but he is only one piece of the puzzle. Lay Supply Pastor Jeff McArn, who serves as chaplain at Hamilton College in Clinton, takes a few of the Sunday services, and a guest speaker or two also participate in the summer months. During a morning Bible study on July 15, Pastor McArn played an episode of The Bible − a History Channel miniseries − and asked questions about the stories presented and how viewers with little to no understanding of the Bible might interpret those stories.
There are also non-denominational women's and men's groups that meet weekly, and a prayer ministry that meets at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays. Everyone is welcome, Pastor Couch said.
"God doesn't have any favorites. ... He knows when we hurt, He knows when we need comfort and He knows when we have to be lifted up. And that (prayer ministry) has become a powerful thing here," he said.
"One guy called up and says, 'Put me in the prayer bucket,'" Pastor Couch said with a laugh.
The island is primarily residential (see At a glance). So to fill a need, certified lay minister Charlie Moehs, appointed to the Belleville UMC, visits the island every Saturday for a couple of hours to provide medical services. The exam room is located in the Christian education building, and Moehs and a registered nurse provide basic and sometimes more advanced medical care.
"Whatever needs to be done," Pastor Couch said. "In some cases it may be substantial. Like this guy comes with a prescription that needs filling – he can do that, or if you need diagnosing something he can say, 'Hey, you should go to Watertown."
When the Mercy Care Center of Northern New York in Watertown closed recently, the island's medical clinic received a lot of brand new supplies. Although the clinic and Moehs' services are provided free, many recipients want to make an offering, Pastor Couch said. The development of an appropriate fund is being looked into, he added.
Making it feel whole
After the Bible study, members stayed around to discuss the island and the importance of community.
At a recent turkey dinner − nearly all of the non-permanent residents have left the island by the end of October − the seating in the church's carriage house was at capacity and an additional seven tables outdoors were also filled. That shows how important these gatherings are, one woman said.
There are several events held on the island throughout the summer season, such as the annual Schoolhouse Picnic and Old Home Day events.
Events like these bring everyone to the same table, where common joys and troubles can be lifted up.
"We get involved in that (if someone on the island needs something)," Pastor Couch said.
And that involvement goes far beyond the boundaries of the island.
"I think one of the things I am proudest of here is our work in missions," he said. "We have created an awareness of the needs in the world."
That awareness of, and more importantly addressing, those issues has been a staple of the church as of late.
The members of the Grindstone UMC have helped build two classrooms in Malawi, Africa; last year they raised more than $6,000 for an orphanage in Haiti to buy land so it could produce its own food; they have raised funds for the Clayton Council of Churches Food Pantry; and a mission project this August will help mothers and children in Burundi, Africa. A lot of this comes from the members who are only present from June through August.
"Sometimes it is harder to collect things," such as cans of food, Pastor Couch said. "If you say you are going to build a tangible thing, it is easier for people to connect to that. But we can do whatever we can do and sometimes that is enough."
The mission projects are "something they (the congregation) look forward to, and it is something God has answered for us," he said.
The population will continue to bloom in the summer as year-round residents will continue to decline, Pastor Couch said. But there is another undeniable thing about Grindstone Island, he said:
"This is an interesting place."
At a glance: Grindstone Island
Grindstone Island is beautiful in the summers but inhospitable in the winter.
That's according to several island residents and Pastor Arthur Couch at the Grindstone United Methodist Church (Northern Flow District).
Many years ago, Grindstone Island was famous for its granite quarry, dairy cattle and a cheese factory that was located in the dead center of the island. That central location was convenient for farmers, but a burden for shipping the cheese off the island. Slowly, changes in regulations made it more difficult to dairy farm on the island, and the price of real estate started to climb as urbanites sought waterfront summer homes.
The population of year-round residents declined, and on June 19, 1989, District #15, the last one room schoolhouse in New York state, closed its doors permanently. (In August 1998, the building reopened as the Grindstone Island Research & Heritage Center.)
Today, only 12 people are year-round residents; the population balloons to over 700 people in the summer months.
Potters Beach, on the island's western end, is accessible by driving the North Shore Road and then a short walk through the woods down to the water's edge; boats have an easier time, evident by the hundreds that anchor in the bay each weekend.
The beach, which is owned by the Thousand Islands Land Trust (TILT), features one of the only naturally occurring sandy beaches in the Thousand Islands. On some weekends, Pastor Couch said, the mass of swimmers is so large that you can't find an open patch of water.
Forty-five percent of Grindstone Island is protected from development by TILT.
The church, the heritage center and a meat producer on the island are the only non-residential entities. Although part of the island has access to DSL, most have no access to cable or (land-based) telephone or Internet services.
There is year-round postal delivery, picked up by airboat in Clayton, but the only emergency services are provided by the town of Clayton, which means crossing the St. Lawrence River.
All homes have driven wells, usually finding an ideal location approximately 80-feet down into the granite, Pastor Couch said.
On July 15, 2013, Pastor Couch gave a driving tour of the island. He pointed to the agricultural livelihoods of a majority of the island's non-retired residents; a few travel to the mainland for work. A relatively new vineyard covers several acres in one part, while machinery works to cut hay in another. With smaller tracts of land the cattle herds are also smaller, so one cutting, Pastor Couch said, is all most farmers do in a season.
Small garden plots had sprinkler and drip lines crisscrossing the plants.
With no rainfall in at least the preceding five days, driving down the dirt roads − even at low speed − created a cloud of dust. Pastor Couch knows his way around, but few of the lanes are marked with signage. Speed limit signs are also a bit idiosyncratic; approaching one house a speed sign nailed to a tree warned drivers not to exceed 25 miles per hour; at the very next residence a different sign affixed to a post cautioned to not exceed 15 miles per hour.
The roads are maintained by the town of Clayton. Part of the town's budget includes brush trimming, road maintenance and snow plowing. There are no sidewalks, paved roads, street lights, or public water or sewer.
Gasoline, kerosene, LP gas and the like are delivered once, sometimes twice per year to the island. Some residents will take containers to the mainland by boat to fill up at the dock. Once a vehicle is on the island it usually remains there until the family is ready to depart for the winter months; a trip from the mainland to the island via a naval landing craft costs approximately $250 one-way.
You could sit by the road for hours, maybe days, without seeing a car or truck drive by. With gasoline at a premium − there are no on-island locations to get gas at and the price is higher at the dock in Clayton, near the Antique Boat Museum, than the gas station just half a mile away − the preferred mode of transportation on the island is via ATV or bicycle.
By Christian Vischi
Christian L. Vischi is the communications associate at the Upper New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, Syracuse. His role at the Conference is to tell the stories of the unique missions and ministries that occur at the more than 930 United Methodist churches in Upper New York.