“a dream has no dimensions”

The ministry of Dr. May Cravath Wharton began in a humble way: she said ‘yes’ to being the school doctor for the Pleasant Hill Academy.  From there, a consuming dream arose:  “a new day on the Mountain when men and women, equipped with sound bodies and trained minds and hands, could meet the demands of their environment and achieve a more abundant life.”[1]

As a physician, it became Dr. May’s lifelong vocation to address the chronic health conditions of the local people.  In her autobiography, she wrote:

What a joy it would be to help in mending and revitalizing the neglected people of our Mountain!  In my mind I checked over the battered men with their bent backs and gnarled hands, and the women, old and worn-out at thirty from childbearing and hard work, whom I had been treating.  Each bore the stamp of neglect and hard living conditions.  Exposed to the hardships and privations of frontier life, isolated for generations, they had never benefited by modern sanitary science.  They knew little about the dangers of infection.  They neglected accidental injuries.  They suffered chronic ailments in silence and fatalistic resignation… If a thing must be endured, they figured, it must.

It was her love for the people of the Cumberland Plateau that kept Dr. May on the Mountain after her husband died.  In 1921, she and Elizabeth Fletcher (friend and former art teacher at the Academy) opened “Sanex” (sanitarium annex) — a two-bed hospital — the first hospital in Pleasant Hill.  Not long after that, they were joined in their efforts by Alice Adshead, a registered nurse, whom Dr. May had met during a time of respite following her husband’s death.  In 1922, the Uplands Cumberland Mountain Sanitarium was chartered.  Over the next few years, these three women would embark on an impressive public health venture, beginning outpatient clinics in outlying areas, as well as educational programs on hygiene and nutrition.  By 1935, they would open “Cumberland General Hospital” – a 20-bed hospital with operating room, surgical ward, and maternity room.  In 1937, the Van Dyck House was opened, for treatment of tuberculosis.  When a visitor remarked that Dr. May’s dream had come true, she was quoted as replying, “A dream has no dimensions.”

Today, if you drive the eleven miles from Uplands Village to the town of Crossville, you will see another part of the vast dream that Dr. May, Elizabeth Fletcher, and Alice Adshead shared with the people they loved:  Cumberland Medical Center.  Dedicated in 1950, Cumberland Medical Center describes itself as “an acute care hospital offering all private patient rooms as well as specialized services not usually found in the rural medical system.”  The dream without dimensions continues to provide state of the art care to the people of the Cumberland Plateau.

the three dreamers:
Elizabeth Fletcher, Dr. May, and Alice Adshead

[1] May Cravath Wharton, “Doctor Woman of the Cumberlands: The Autobiography of May Cravath Wharton, M.D.” (Pleasant Hill: Uplands Retirement Village, 1953), 85.

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The name, “Uplands” was inspired by a poem by James G. Clark:

The Call
I saw the mountain stand
Silent and wonderful and grand
Looking out across the land,
When the golden light was falling
On a distant dome and spire.
And I heard a low voice calling
“Come up higher,
Come up higher,
From the lowland and the mire
From the mist of earth desire,
From the vain pursuit of pelf,[1]
From the attitude of self,
Come up higher,
Come up higher.

After reading the poem, Dr. May wanted to convey something of the idea in naming her health care ministry.  “Up from the lowlands…Uplands!”  That became its name.

[1] “pelf” – Wealth or riches, especially when dishonestly acquired.

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doctor woman

The story of Uplands Village really begins with a school called the Pleasant Hill Academy, established in 1884 by the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Christian Church.  Created to provide education to rural students on the Cumberland Plateau, the Pleasant Hill Academy was a boarding school dedicated to liberal arts, sciences, agriculture and vocational training.  The school was accredited by the University of Tennessee; all graduates were automatically accepted to UT.  It remained active until 1946, when the Cumberland County school system acquired the property for a public school.

In 1917, the Rev. Edwin Wharton came to the Academy to be its principal.  His wife, Dr. May Cravath Wharton, came with him to become the school doctor.  As “Dr. May” began her work, she became acutely aware of many medical needs – not only of the children of the Academy, but of the people in the surrounding area as well – many of whom lived in small, isolated mountain cabins.  When summoned, Dr. May would grab her bag without hesitation and head off into the woods to minister to those in great need.

Sadly, in 1920, while Dr. May was away on a fundraising tour for the Academy and the people of the Cumberland Plateau, her husband Edmund, became gravely ill.  He lived just long enough for her to make her way back to the school and be with him as he passed.  Before he died, he charged her to remain here with the mountain people who needed her.  But with her husband gone, Dr. May’s position at the Pleasant Hill Academy was gone as well.  And so, grieving, she planned to return to her New England roots.  As she was preparing to leave, several members of the community presented her with a petition, signed by 50 families, begging her to stay and be their “doctor woman.”  She did, and for the next 42 years she remained a dedicated and determined physician, winning the trust and changing the lives of the people of the Cumberland Plateau.


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into the woods

The Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee (also known as the “Cumberland Mountains”) refers to that portion of the Appalachian Plateaus Province that runs through Kentucky and Tennessee and into Alabama.  Rising a thousand feet above the surrounding valley, the Cumberland Plateau is an uplifted tableland with broad plains dissected by river canyons.  It contains some of the largest stretches of hardwood forests in the Eastern United States, and it is absolutely beautiful.  Uplands Retirement Village is located here on the Cumberland Plateau.

Back in January, when I began a conversation with the Uplands about the possibility of a visit here this summer, we were graciously offered the historic Munson-Fletcher Log House as a place to stay during our one-week visit.  “It’s rustic,” I was warned.  “Not to worry,” I said, “we are good at rustic.”  “We do rustic at our own cabin in the Poconos.”

The Munson-Fletcher Log House was built in 1932 by Miss Elizabeth Fletcher, one of the three founders of what is now Uplands Retirement Village.  A description of the cabin reads like this:

“Traversing the path behind the Braun home, crossing a small stream, one comes upon this charming log cabin nestled among the dogwoods, tulip poplars, and hemlocks.”

They weren’t fooling:

Inside, the house has become a “charming repository for artifacts relating to the early history of Uplands.”[1]

Back in January, the Munson-Fletcher Log Cabin seemed like a good idea.  Yes, it is “rustic,” but it has running water and an indoor potty, making it way more luxurious than our cabin in the Poconos.  What I failed to really appreciate was what mid-July in Tennessee feels like.  And this, they tell me, ‘really ain’t that hot.’  In fact, it’s supposed to ‘warm up’ later this week.

There is no doubt that the people of the Uplands are made of stronger stuff than I am.  After 24 hours in the most soulful little log cabin I’ve ever seen, we were able to negotiate a move to one of the Uplands guest cottages… with air-conditioning… and wi-fi.

A couple months ago the cockroaches got the better of me.  This time it was the heat and humidity.  The verdict is officially in: I’m a wuss.

[1] Jean Clark, “Many take advantage of open house at charming log home,” Crossville Chronicle, November 29, 2011.

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a bold witness

Our path from Michigan to Tennessee ran directly through Ripley, Ohio – a little village with a proud history on the banks of the Ohio River.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the territories northwest of the Ohio River.  Ohio, therefore, was free.  Kentucky, on the other hand (directly across the river) was a slave state.  On one side of the river a human being was in bondage; on the other side of the river they were free.

Ohio River at Ripley

The people of Ripley, Ohio were made of strong stuff.  Led by a prophetic pastor, the Rev. John Rankin, Ripley became a thriving abolitionist town with over 300 members in the Ripley Anti-Slavery Society.  Their proximity to the river and the slave state of Kentucky, together with their bold witness of faith, led them to become an early stop on the Underground Railroad – a network of citizens helping slaves escape north to freedom.

The Rev. John Rankin, pastor of Ripley Presbyterian Church, was considered one of Ohio’s first and most active “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.  From 1822 to 1865, Rankin – along with his wife and children – assisted more than 2,000 slaves in their journey to freedom.

In 1825, Rankin built a house on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River.  Located about 350 feet above the river, the place came to be known as “Liberty Hill.”  There, Rankin and his family were able to signal runaway slaves in Kentucky with a lantern, letting them know when it was safe for them to cross the river and climb the steep hill on their journey north to freedom.  To further assist those escaping slavery, Rankin also constructed a 100-step staircase leading up to the house.  Those fleeing slavery had to cross the river, climb the steps leading to the Rankin House, and remain hidden there until it was safe for them to travel further north, away from patrols looking for escaped slaves.

Rankin House on Liberty Hill

High Above the Ohio River

For over forty years leading up to the Civil War, the Rev. John Rankin and his family were leaders in the abolition movement.  Many of the 2000 slaves who escaped to freedom through Ripley on the Underground Railroad stayed at the Rankin family home.  Rev. Rankin was proud to say, “I never lost a passenger.”  When Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was asked after the end of the Civil War “Who abolished slavery?” she answered, “Reverend John Rankin and his sons did.”[1]

Steps to Freedom

[1]Hagedorn, Ann,  Beyond The River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

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on the road again

We left Bay View one day later than planned.  It became so hard to imagine leaving the cool breezes, the beautiful views, and the morning and evening plunges into the fresh waters of Lake Michigan that we negotiated an additional day with the owner of the cottage we rented.  It was that easy.

One of the most replenishing things about this sabbatical time has been the freedom — to change plans, to meander, to daydream, to wonder about things in a way that I probably have not since I was a child.  I have time to find out why Xenia, Ohio is called “Xenia,”[1] and to remember who Tecumseh was[2] and why there are so many places that bear his name, and what the Northwest Indian War was about.  I have time to drive from Northern Michigan to Southern Ohio almost entirely on “blue highways,” and to stop along the way and celebrate the “45th Parallel.”

Rob and I and our old dog “Peppy” are on our way to the next community we are scheduled to visit: the Upland’s Retirement Village in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee.  Each morning I will interview residents to learn about what drew them to choose this place; every evening Rob and I will join a small group of residents for dinner in their homes.  We are already grateful for the hospitality they have shown us.

We are on the road again, and ready for the next adventure!

[1] Xenia is Greek for “hospitality.”  Many of its residents supported the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War.

[2] Tecumseh was a leader of the Shawnee who had a vision of establishing an independent American Indian nation east of the Mississippi.  Many places throughout Ohio bear the name, “Tecumseh.”

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reaching towards infinity

“Who was it who said, ‘I hold the buying of more books than one can peradventure read, as nothing less than the soul’s reaching towards infinity; which is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish?’ Whoever it was, I agree with him.” 
– A. Edward Newton, A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book Collector (1921)

My Dad used to say that 20% of the people bought 80% of the books.  He’d usually say this when he was in a bookstore with five or six books in his hands – often at the end of the month, when the rent was due.  Oh well.   Those of us who are part of the 20% know who we are and we justify our purchases with the thought that we are supporting an increasingly archaic art form: the written word, printed on paper, bound as a book, capable of being passed from hand to (subversive) hand, and read without benefit of wi-fi or even electricity.  Some might consider it an addiction to buy more books than one can read.  I prefer to think of it the way A. Edward Newton did:  as “the soul’s reaching towards infinity.”

Perhaps this would explain the suitcase of books that have accompanied me on my sabbatical.  (No, really, a suitcase.)  I decided that if I was going to use this sabbatical wisely, I was going to need my books.  So a whole suitcase of books came with me to Minnesota on the airplane, and whole suitcase of books rode with me in the car to Michigan!  And a whole suitcase of books is going with me to Tennessee.  Delicious decadence!  (My son would call it “wretched excess.”)

So that you know what I am reading now, I am taking this moment to ‘open my suitcase,’ and when I do one thing will become clear:  on this sabbatical leave I have allowed my ADD to run unchecked.

In preparation for the “Sabbath Reading for Preachers” retreat that Daniel Moser and I lead every fall, I am reading and re-reading the following:

  1. Rudolfo Anaya, “Bless Me, Ultima”
  2. Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”
  3. Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken”
  4. Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
  5. Gary Schmidt, “OK for Now”

And in preparation for the communities I have been visiting or will visit this summer, I have read or am reading the following:

  1. Shane Claiborne, “The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical”
  2. Thomas Merton, “Dialogues with Silence”
  3. Saint Benedict, “The Rule for Monasteries”
  4. John A. Weeks, “Beneath the Beeches: The Story of Bay View, Michigan”
  5. Mary Jane Doerr, “Bay View: An American Idea”
  6. Keith J. Fennimore, “The Heritage of Bay View: A Centennial History”
  7. J. Philip Newell, “Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality”
  8. May Cravath Wharton, “Doctor Woman”
  9. Ted Braun, “Mission Without Boundaries: the Remarkable Story of the Pleasant Hill Community Church (UCC)

And because there are always books I’ve meaning to read – books which have been sitting on my desk gathering dust, I have read or am reading:

  1.  Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird: Some Thoughts on Writing and Life”
  2. Kathleen Norris, “The Cloister Walk”
  3. Barbara Brown Taylor, “An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith”
  4. Wayne Muller, “A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough”
  5. Jon Kabat- Zinn, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life”
  6. Brenda Peterson, “I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth”
  7. Lauren Winner, “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis”

And because one thing always leads to another, I have purchased the following books since my sabbatical began and I am in the process of reading:

  1.  Macrina Wiederkehr, “Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day”
  2. Rumer Godden, “In This House of Brede”
  3. Mary Oliver, “New and Selected Poems, Volume One”
  4. Macrina Wiederkehr, “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God”
  5. Joan Chittister, “In Search of Belief”
  6. Abbot Christopher Jamison, “Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life”

So there you have it: “reaching towards infinity.”  It puts such a noble spin on it!

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It is almost always beautiful in Bay View, but the sunsets are extraordinary.  My son, Sam, has an entire photo album on his facebook page devoted entirely to Bay View Sunsets.  Around here, sunsets are an event.  There are benches strategically placed throughout Bay View that invite you to just sit and savor the beauty.  So it is not unusual to find people gathered on the banks of the Bay – sitting on benches or swings, or just standing there – waiting for sunset.  And when it comes, after the very last sliver of blood-red orange slips beneath the horizon, they clap.

You would too…

In the summer of 1997, my sister and her family came to Bay View to see for themselves what all the fuss was about.  We rented a large cottage across the street from Rob’s family, and all of us piled into it for a week of Bay View splendor.  There was pie at “Jesperson’s” in Petoskey, and sunsets over Lake Michigan, a trip to Mackinac Island to see The Grand Hotel and the horse-drawn carriages in that picturesque little place that still doesn’t allow cars, and there was the periodic excitement of running to the corner stoplight to watch the ambulances go by.  About halfway through their visit, my sister asked – politely, but with sincerity – “what do you actually do up here?”

There’s a lot about Bay View that’s hard to explain.  That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to offer up as many posts over these last two weeks as I had expected.  What do we do up here?  It’s a little hard to explain, but it looks something like this.

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When the Bay View Association was founded in 1875 (then named, the “Methodist Camp Ground Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church”) it was following the lead of other Methodist campgrounds established in the east – places like Wesleyan Grove on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts (1835), and Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in Ocean Grove, New Jersey (1869), and Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly in Chautauqua, New York (1874).

Like those assemblies, Bay View was originally founded for the purposes of educating Sunday school teachers.  Also like them, the popularity and sustainability of the campground revival experience gave way to a populist education movement originating along the shores of Lake Chautauqua, New York.

The Chautauqua[1] Lake Sunday School Assembly first began as a place of summer learning for Sunday school teachers.  The program was so successful that it almost immediately broadened its mission beyond courses for Sunday school teachers to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education.  These, then, became the four pillars of what was to be known as the Chautauqua program: religion, education, the arts, and recreation – and these four programmatic pillars remain in place today.

One of the more interesting features of the Chautauqua movement was the development of an innovative educational reading program in 1878, called the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.  Within six years, national membership in these circles had extended well beyond New York – with over 2000 participants forming more than 130 circles in 110 cities. [2]  The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circles – still in existence today – represent the oldest continuous book club in America.

[1] “Chautauqua” is Iroquois, meaning, among other things, “jumping fish.”
ary Jane Doerr, Bay View: An American Idea, (Allegan Forest, Michigan: The Priscilla Press, 2010), 42.



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akhil and me

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but I wanted to give you an example of what makes Bay View such an extraordinary place today.

Last night, Rob and I were privileged to be included in a small dinner party in honor of Akhil Amar – an American legal scholar and an expert in constitutional law and criminal procedure.  Akhil is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and he is the “American Experience Forum” speaker for this year’s Fourth of July week at Bay View.  (Tonight, Sam is having dinner with Akhil.)

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act, Akhil has been a busy man.  He was quoted (more than once) in the New York Times, interviewed on MSNBC and CNN, and has regularly been on the phone with politicos and newsmakers.

You might notice that I call him, “Akhil” – like we’re friends or something – like we’re on a first name basis.

Akhil is the only person I know who can say, “When my son and I were having dinner with Justice Thomas last Thursday…” or, “When I was interviewed by Steven Colbert…” or,
“When I was with Ray Charles back at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia… or, “When I was talking to my good friend Peter Jennings…”

You know.  Just ordinary stuff.

I mentioned that this was a small dinner party, right?  There were seven of us: Rob, his parents, a couple from the American Foreign Service who have served in places like Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Croatia and, most recently, the US Embassy in Kabul.

You know.  Just ordinary stuff.

It was those five people and — oh yeah — Akhil and me.

I think I might have understood about 40% of what they all were talking about, but it was absolutely one of the most remarkable evenings I will ever know.

Yep, me and Akhil.  We’re buds.

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