Ketoctin Grace

As long-time readers of this blog know, a small brick church in Virginia’s Loudoun County has been a singular presence in my entire life. Ketoctin Baptist Church was founded in 1751. Its archives still contain correspondence between these Baptists and Thomas Jefferson, defender of the religious freedom they espoused in Colonial and Revolutionary times.

A succession of wood and stone buildings was replaced in 1854 by the present brick structure. Worship services and an annual Homecoming still take place at the historic church. I have been invited to preach at several of those homecomings over the years.

But Ketoctin is more than a venerable marker in my memory. It is also a prism through which to see America’s history in all its many colors and conditions. Over the past few weeks it has arisen again as a testimony to the grace that has laced through the horrors and injustices to which it has been a witness. Here’s the poem it evoked.


On an ancient wooded hill above the gentle creek ten thousand years ago

They built fires to cook their food, constructed huts to overwinter, ate the berries, roots, and acorn mash beneath the sheltering oaks.

They fought to guard that land from others, wept for loss and laughed in plenty.

On that land they knew

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

Others came on boats with muskets, took possession of the land by force and guile,

Built houses, cut the trees to clear the land for crops and cattle,

Placed a cross and table in a meeting house,

Sang hymns, cried prayers, suffered from disease and violent struggles, shouted hallelujahs,

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

Split down the middle of their hearts by greed and aspiration,

They brought people bound in iron, took their labor, harvested the blood-wrung wealth, enlarged their houses and their barns,

Fought their brothers for their liberty on shackling ground, forgetting

            We live only by the grace of God and our returning gratitude.

Blessed, born, baptized, and buried, they prayed and sang within a building built of brick and stone, their bodies soon returning to the land, the oaks, the waters, and the air.

But family drew the blood from family, sacrificing children on the altar of their hatred and their fear,

Until the people black and white were levelled in the judgment of the sword,

Struggling to remember

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

The oaks are now surrounded by habitats of brick and wood sustained by burning fossils of a vanished world.

People born of many skins and words and memories gather in the building underneath the oaks,

Give voice to loss and hope and tangled loves to join the song unceasing,

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

Ketoctin Baptist Church and graveyard