the fringe

The final leg of my sabbatical journey began as we arrived in Scotland.  After two days in Glasgow to sightsee and recover from jetlag we traveled by train to Edinburgh.  We are here to see our son, Sam, perform in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Out of the Blue, an a capella men’s choir from Oxford University.

This portion of the journey wasn’t part of the original sabbatical vision.  Originally, I was to visit just four communities – all from North America: The Simple Way in Philadelphia, St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the Bay View Association in Michigan, and Uplands Village in TennesseeBut Sam’s involvement with Out of the Blue changed all that.  As a member of the group, he would necessarily remain at Oxford for the entire school year (instead of the one semester originally planned), and he would also commit himself to performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the entire month of August, as has been the group’s tradition over the past eight years.  His travels, and extended absence from us, led us to see if a trip to Scotland could be woven into our summer plans.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the world.  It takes place every year in the month of August in the ancient and beautiful city of Edinburgh.  This year, the Fringe spans 25 days, showcasing over 2,695 shows from 47 countries in 279 venues.  It’s a smorgasborg of creativity featuring music, theater, comedy, dance, the spoken word, opera, burlesque, art exhibits, workshops, as well as a children’s program.

Out of the Blue gave a rockin’ good performance yesterday afternoon!  (Those boys are performing every day for the entire festival, with one day off.)  We’ll soak up a few days watching our boy and taking in as many shows as our middle-aged souls can handle, and then it is north to Iona!

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the uplands today

With the building of Cumberland Medical Center, Uplands was free to reinvent itself.  In 1953, visitors suggested that Uplands might become a place for retiring career missionaries.  In 1956, the first retirement cottage was authorized.  Missionaries on fixed incomes, completing a lifetime of service, found a welcome here.  The first homes were given away.  Dr. May always seemed to have a heart for those in need.

Word of the Uplands spread quickly among those who had given their lives in service.  Soon, it would become home to a large number of career missionaries.  (Those who remain today represent over 600 combined years of missionary service in the name of Jesus Christ.)  But it wasn’t just missionaries who were drawn to this place.  Faith-based community activists found a home here as well, as did teachers, doctors, pastors, librarians, community leaders and church leaders and people who celebrated the life of the mind.  These were the kinds of people drawn to the Uplands, and these people drew others like them.

Today, Uplands Village is in the process of having to reinvent itself again.  The world has changed, and the way we do ministry and mission in the Church has changed.  There are far fewer career missionaries now than there used to be and those who live at Uplands Village are getting older and older.  It won’t be long before their faithful witness will be but a memory.

It’s hard to explain what will be lost when the missionaries are gone.  One cannot serve for more than 40 years in Kinshasa (the capital of the former Zaire), or Sendai (the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture in Japan), or Tokyo, or Hiroshima (having gone there in 1948 — just three years after the war) — without being profoundly changed by the experience.  These are deeply faithful servants of God; people whose ways of living and thinking and praying are shaped by a global perspective.  If we are at war somewhere in the world, there is someone at the Uplands who knows people in that place; people who have deep and abiding friendships with folks there.  If there is an earthquake or a tsunami someplace, there are people at Uplands who know those towns, those cities, those communities, those churches.  These are people shaped by a love that extends far beyond national borders.

As Uplands moves into the future, one of its challenges will be to retain and nurture the noble value of true  servanthood which grows — so naturally — out of the very heart of the people who have lived there.

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“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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