EWELL, Md. On an island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay that's unreachable by car, nothing takes away from the praying.
Worshippers tap their feet along with the Southern gospel performers, and they murmur ''Amen'' when the gentle preaching pauses. But they are surrounded by solitude on Smith Island.
Every summer for 116 years, churchgoers have walked from their homes or caught a boat ''over home'' to attend the annual camp meeting here. It began as a way for Methodists to convert their neighbors, but has evolved over the last century into a homecoming for old crabbers and the families that moved away from Smith Island to find work or a less-isolated lifestyle.
''I live in Easton, but I'm a Smith Islander. I've only lived on the mainland 20 years,'' said Dixie Larri-more, 64. She describes herself the way many islanders do: ''I have mud between my toes.''
On Smith Island population 295 it takes a special commitment for nonresidents to attend the camp meeting, and that may be part of what's kept it alive. First, there's the boat trip over 12 miles from the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. They usually stay at a relative's house or one of two small inns.
For non-islanders, it's a real break from the routine. For people who live here, it's easier to stay for the camp meeting than go somewhere else.
The unique setting of the tiny island makes the meetings quieter, more hallowed.
''There's no Hollywood to it,'' said Steve Eades, innkeeper, charter boat captain and general store owner on the island. ''That helps with the religious part of it. Once you're there, there are no distractions.''
On the first day of this summer's camp meeting, July 27, about 130 people gathered inside a low, dark tabernacle that is opened yearly only for this occasion. The day's events were much like the days that followed: testimony meeting, morning worship, song service and a nightly service. Sitting on the wooden pews, their hymn books lit by hanging light bulbs, congregants brought their own Bibles and rested their Sunday shoes on a dirt floor covered with sawdust and cedar shavings.
The week's events opened with a prayer, thanking God for ''the crabs, the fish and the oysters.'' After services, people drift just a few feet outside the tabernacle to visit family grave sites. There are about 400 islanders buried in this yard more people than live on the island.
Most of the tombstones are etched with the same names Evans, Tyler, Harrison and Bradshaw families still living here that trace their ancestors back as far as 11 generations.
''It is unique. We're probably raised differently from anywhere else in the world,'' said Junior Evans, 63, a crabber who still works the Potomac River every day of the year.
''Our fathers set an example for us, and they expect us to follow them. That's what brings us back.''
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