An island split on money and sin Tangier: The Town Council turns away the makers of a PG-13 movie, exposing a rift between the old and new.


TANGIER, Va. -- The locals like to say that the first thing you can see on Tangier Island is the steeple of the Methodist Church, heart of this devout community of watermen and their families for 101 years.

What's not visible from the tourist boats are the satellite dishes and the pickup trucks. Or the six-packs sneaked onto this supposedly "dry" place, slipped through an increasingly porous border between island and mainland, old and new.

And in that tension lies a clue for those wondering how this tiny island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay could reject Paul Newman, Kevin Costner and a PG-13 movie they wanted to film here.

The Tangier Town Council -- dominated by the island's powerful core of born-again Christians -- voted this week to not allow filming for the movie, "Message in a Bottle," because it was inconsistent with community values.

The script had scenes involving alcohol, sex and profanity. None of these things surprised Tangier, where "Titanic" -- another PG-13 film about an island of sorts -- is a huge hit. But given the chance to take a stand against Hollywood sin, Tangier did.

"The water's like an invisible fence for us," says Vice Mayor Ed Parks. "We can see the big changes modern technology brings, and we welcome that. But we just don't need to take everything that comes down the pike."

A large, vocal group of residents -- including many who rely on the island's growing tourist business -- are furious at the Town Council and threatening to vote them out of office in the May elections.

By sending the filmmakers away, the town gave up $5,000 cash, $23,000 worth of repairs to the town dock and work for hundreds of residents of an island where nearly one-third of the households reported earning less than $10,000 in the 1990 census.

But the anti-Hollywood vote was pure Tangier, driven by morality, wariness and a stubborn independence bred by generations of working the water with no boss but the blue crab.

Tangiermen -- as both men and women call themselves here -- are largely descended from a few families that settled the island more than a century ago. Most everybody is a Pruitt, a Crockett, a Wheatley, a Parks or a Dise. All are white.

"Everybody around here's got to be some relation," says waterman Paul Wheatley.

They also share an island twang, a sing-songy Southern drawl that makes some Tangiermen sound as if they have marbles in their mouths. The combination of long vowels and soft consonants can make islanders all but unintelligible to an outsider.

Crisfield, Maryland, is just 12 miles and a 40-minute boat ride away, but Tangier's population of 685 is stable and homogeneous. Those who don't like the life or values of the island can leave -- and do. Tangier had twice its current population in 1921.

Still, island life is changing.

Hundreds of tourists come from the mainland every summer day, pumping cash into the local economy and supporting inns, restaurants, ice cream stands, souvenir shops and a fleet of golf carts, rented out for travel or tours.

The fascination is mutual.

Satellite dishes are common throughout town. The daily mail boat delivers videos from a store in Crisfield. Legions of islanders made the trip to Salisbury to see "Titanic."

"You come over and try to take our televisions," says Wallace Pruitt, who runs Shirley's Bay View Inn with his wife. "You'll get your hands cut off."

There's also a new push from the outside to bring environmental responsibility to the island's dominant industry, crabbing. A conference this weekend attempts to root environmentalism in the island's traditional Christian morals.

And some say alcohol is becoming more common as well, though it's illegal to buy any on the island.

It is against this sea of change that the island's stand against Hollywood is best understood.

"We've stood up for the first time in our lives," teacher Carlene Shores told a church meeting Thursday night. "Don't lose sight of what we have done. We've united against sin."

Though evangelical Christianity has long been strong here, the power of Tangier's two churches has grown. At a 1995 revival, more than 200 islanders -- nearly a third of the population -- became born-again Christians.

For many, faith has been a powerful force for bringing the island together, reaffirming the basic values that allowed Tangier to survive as one of only two inhabited offshore islands in the Chesapeake.

Darren Landon, the town's only police officer and a part-time garbage collector, was among those saved three years ago. He now leads church youth groups and wears a rainbow-colored bracelet with the initials W.W.J.D. -- What Would Jesus Do?

"I believe that when I saw the 'Titanic,' I lowered my example some. But I apologized," says Landon. "It takes a lifetime to be an example. It takes a minute to lose it."

But this brand of Christianity, with its emphasis on proselytizing, doesn't sit well with many Tangiermen, including some who describe themselves as born-again Christians.

They see the churches as part of a ruling clique that also holds power over the school and Town Council. Many kept quiet as their island seemed to go from solidly religious to downright preachy. Their outrage at the movie vote has helped them find their voices.

The movie had offered economic opportunity and a bit of stardust for Tangier, which hasn't seen much excitement since a circus passed through 20 years ago.

"You see what happens around here," says Ed Charnock, a waterman preparing his crab pots for the season beginning April 1. "I would have liked to see the stars."

But he adds, "Religion plays a big part in this town. I think that's pretty much what runs the town."

Up the street -- a narrow strip of pavement bordered by chain-link fences -- beautician Linda Wheatly cuts hair in the small shop in the front of her home. She moved here 17 years ago and was born again: "My relationship with the Lord, I owe to Tangier."

But Wheatley -- whose daughter Allison, a single mom, would have made money driving a golf cart for the visiting filmmakers -- sees something un-Christian in the Town Council vote.

"Why didn't we welcome this movie?' says Wheatley, who is so angry she's running for a council seat in May. "Why didn't we welcome them into our church?"

The answer, as with most things on Tangier, goes back to Christ and the sea.

As born-again Christians, they had a point to make about money and sin. And the sea, which provides islanders an unusually long look at the things coming their way, gave them the power to declare it.

"Even Howard Stern's talking about us," said Town Councilwoman Nina C. Pruitt, a school librarian. "If he calls us an idiot, we've got to be doing something right."

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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