By Josette Keelor
BLUEMONT -- The Native American Church of Virginia started in 2009, but a recent discovery of an artifact dating back 10,470 years to a Paleo-Indian site has inspired Rene White (Feather) and Chris (Comeswithclouds) White to call it the oldest church in continuous operation in the world.
Their church is not the "brick and mortar" kind, Chris White explained. It holds ceremonies outdoors by a stream on the 20 acres in eastern Clarke County where the Whites live. He descends from the Cherokee tribe, and she from the Lumbee Indians.
Raised by Methodist parents, he said the Native American Church doesn't try to change anyone's beliefs. Instead, it complements them by offering guidance, particularly to church leaders he said "don't always have someone to talk to."
He also doesn't intend it to take the place of another religion but instead offer "another eye, another ear."
Chris White, CEO of the Virginia church, and Rene White, president, said they want to bridge the gap of separation between Native American religious beliefs and those of other major religions.
"The only barrier that exists is in our language," he said. "Instead of looking at how we're different, we look at how we're alike."
"Their common thread is as ours," he said. "One God and creator of all."
Last week the couple hosted Winchester flute player Alan Stanz in the filming of a music video at their church ceremonial site with filmmaker Arel Avellino of Avellino Studios in Winchester.
Avellino filmed Stanz performing on a Native American Woodsounds flute.
"It's a very beautiful site," Avellino said. "[It's] filled with history, but it's very rocky."
To account for the landscape, he and Winchester sound company Uber S'more used a boom-operated mic he said is perfect in such a scenario. The mic picks up only the sounds they want it to.
Stanz, who also plays saxophone and teaches through G&M Music in Winchester, performed music he practiced for the first time that afternoon.
"I don't play what's written down," he explained. "Whatever comes out of the flute is an extension of who I am."
In 2009, he founded the 3-day American Indian Music Fest at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge, Arizona.
The music video was part of a contest to earn a $1,000 toward a Woodsounds Flute. Stanz said the contest ends June 15 and viewers on YouTube will have until July 15 to vote for their favorite video to win the contest.
Avellino, who signed on because of an interest in helping the area community of artists, was hoping for a one shot video with no cuts.
"It was kind of like doing a live show," he said. "You want to get it perfect the first time."
He said by June 15 viewers will find the video at Avellino Studios' YouTube page or through a link at Sanctuary on the Trail's Facebook page.
It was only a couple weeks ago that Stanz first talked with the Whites about doing the video.
"Wouldn't that be fascinating to do something like that at a place that actually has a Native American Heritage?" he remembered thinking.
The Whites, who purchased the land in 1998, didn't realize until recently just how much heritage is there.
In 2011, they hired an archeologist to do thermoluminescence dating on the fireplace in their ceremonial site where the couple held their own wedding ceremony in 2007.
In the fireplace he found a warped piece of jasper, Rene White remembered, "and that's the last time we think this was used." He told the couple the land used to be a sacred ceremonial site where leaders held sacred ceremonies.
The artifact was sent to Washington State University for dating, and results were returned last September.
"With the establishment of our church," Rene White said, "and the fact that this site was a sacred ceremonial site, meaning it was also a sacred church, then that makes this the oldest church in continuous operation in the world."
Visit the Native American Church of Virginia at sanctuaryonthetrail.org/
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org>