IN THE 19TH-CENTURY HOMES THAT dot the wooded hills along the banks of the Rapidan River in rural southwestern Virginia, folks are used to things that go bump—and creak and groan—in the night. So, one morning in November 1993, when Nancy James found herself reporting to the local sheriff that she’d been awakened hours earlier by two strange occurrences—the kitchen door of her farmhouse had been opened and slammed shut and later opened and left ajar—she felt just a bit silly. “Teen pranks,” the deputy in the Culpeper County sheriffs office told her. “Change the locks.”
James followed the advice but to no avail. Fourteen months later, after a series of bizarre incidents, intrusions and thinly veiled threats, the 40-year-old priest of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church is no longer embarrassed but frightened. And her angry charge that she is the victim of harassment has left the tiny village of Rapidan and the parish she has presided over for four years saddened, stunned—and bitterly divided. “I’m amazed at what’s happening to her,” says Robert Elders, 69, who preceded James as pastor of Emmanuel. “It’s not the Lord’s way, but this is a sleepy little place that won’t admit times have changed.” In fact, some in town refuse to admit that James is the victim of anything but her own delusions. “Everything has been wildly overblown,” said longtime Emmanuel parishioner Harold Donnelly. “The poor girl is…sick. It’s bizarre.”
Sitting in her office in the 121-year-old church, James says that though she may not know exactly who is tormenting her, she does know why. The problem, she says, began right in her own parish. On this, at least, most of the locals seem to agree: Nancy James and the Emmanuel church have been a bad fit from day one. For generations the local gentry, some of whose homes were used by Confederate generals during what residents still call the War, had lived quiet, tradition-bound lives. On Sundays they settled into their family pews to worship as their parents and grandparents had. “Once, I moved the furniture in the chancel,” says Elders. “They were very unhappy. They pleaded with me to move it back.”
When, in 1990, Elders took on a new parish in Canada, the six-member vestry, the church’s lay governing board, had to find a replacement fast. They voted unanimously to hire James, a friend of Elders’s who had been the priest at nearby Brandy Station since 1986—and who, though they didn’t know it, had never met a piece of furniture she didn’t want to move. “I was raised to be independent-minded,” says James, who is divorced and the youngest of three children of the late Franklin James, an Air Force pilot, and his wife, Eve. “With two older brothers and a military father, she had to carve out her own environment,” says her brother Frank, 48, a professor of urban policy at the University of Colorado. “She was a feminist before her time.”
From the moment she arrived at Emmanuel in 1991, James, who grew up on military bases in California and Texas, paid little heed to the traditions held dear by her 25 parishioners, most twice her age. First she left the pulpit to preach amid her congregation. Then she dropped the thees and thines in the Book of Common Prayer that the congregation had been using since 1928. And on several Saturday nights she turned the church hall into a social hall for square dancing. Her approach brought in dozens of new, younger worshippers, doubling Emmanuel’s congregation. But the old-timers were uncomfortable. Said Alexander Jackson Jr., a 90-year-old retired rear admiral who has worshipped at Emmanuel for 30 years: “To bring in a woman priest in her ’30s who had opposite views [from the majority of the congregation] simply asked for trouble.”
But according to James, the real trouble was rooted in her decision to bus in about 15 homeless black men she knew from her mission work in Washington, 120 miles away, to take part in Emmanuel’s Sunday service. Though some members of the all-white church were quietly dismayed (Admiral Jackson called the move an “invitation to thievery”), most initially welcomed the visitors. “It was the first time that Emmanuel was half black,” says former senior warden Libby Payette, 63. “I thought we had done extremely well.”
But by summer the experiment—which James repeated every six weeks or so—had created ill feeling. In July 1992, she says, a group confronted her at a Fourth of July party and expressed their displeasure at sharing services—not to mention the chalice—with itinerant black men. Yet she chose to keep inviting the men. “I thought we could break down barriers, explore each other’s humanity,” she says. “I thought my parishioners would see that times have changed, that races mix now.”
They did not, however, see things as she had hoped. “It was not that people objected to the black men who came in,” says one former parishioner. “It was that she did not have a gracious style; people were not given enough notification.” By December, the vestry split 3-3 over whether to renew James’s contract, and James herself cast the deciding vote to stay. She and the vestry called in the then-assistant bishop of Virginia’s Episcopal diocese, Robert Atkinson, to mediate. Atkinson advised James to communicate better with her parish, set up regular office hours and try to be more sensitive to their feelings. But in the end the diocese supported her ministry—which Atkinson calls “brilliant”—and refused to relieve her of her duties. At that point, many lifelong members of Emmanuel simply chose to leave, taking their money with them. Others, claims James, chose a different course. “They had done everything they could through the church channels to get me fired,” she says. “They had no recourse left but harassment.”
Beginning the following November, when James awoke to the sound of her kitchen door slamming shut, she would return to her white clapboard farmhouse, she says, to find personal items stolen or rearranged. Her two dogs, Cornelia and Gretel, disappeared. The church was broken into, the furnace, copying machine and typewriter broken and letters pried off the altar. An intruder in her home found flashcards she uses to study German and French and propped up ones reading “violence,” “blood” and “wound.” She received numerous hang-up phone calls. When, in December 1993, James moved temporarily into the basement apartment of T.C. Lea, her attorney in nearby Culpeper, he began getting hang-up calls. Later his office was broken into. And last December, James’s friend Payette came home to find her doorknob unscrewed. “It shocked the life out of me,” says Payette.
Almost more disturbing to James is her belief that Culpeper County-Sheriff Robert Peters has not pursued the culprits in earnest—a contention Peters denies: “We’ve checked into her claims and will continue investigating.” But, he adds, “we have no active suspects.”
Meanwhile her flock at Emmanuel—some put off by her ministry, others by the controversy—has dwindled back to a couple dozen members, and the church faces financial ruin. Last month, James accepted a weekday job as the director of a shelter for homeless women in Washington. Still, she refuses to leave Rapidan completely—or to change her ways. “When times of darkness and uncertainty come, we are to stand firm as Mary did,” she told the 20 or so worshippers who showed up at Emmanuel one Sunday in January. “But when it comes down to it,” she asks, “where do you get the courage?” Her answer: faith. And the loaded handgun she keeps on a bookshelf in her bedroom, just in case faith alone is no longer enough.
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
ROCHELLE JONES in Rapidan