Rev. Jennings W. Hobson III has been around Rappahannock County long enough — 42 years and counting — that nothing surprises him, and just about everything delights him.
That includes the fact that his selection as the Rappahannock News’ 2014 Citizen of the Year would require two longstanding traditions to be broken: First, he’s the first Citizen to have been chosen for the honor twice, the first time being 22 years ago. Second, he learned about the normally secret selection a few days in advance, because the designation nowadays comes with the added responsibility of being grand marshal of the Christmas in Little Washington parade — an event for which, as many know, he has a longstanding prior commitment.
Thus his first reaction: He wondered if this was legal. And the second was that he was determined to keep both commitments at Sunday’s parade.
“That’s Jenks,” says Rev. Jon Heddleston, the longtime pastor of Sperryville’s Reynolds Baptist Church, who credits Hobson with being a primary mentor over the years, as well as a model of the minister’s calling to “love someone first, meet them where they are and help them as you can.”
“He’s as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with at being a leader, in the foreground, as well as being in the background, and helping make it possible for others to take the lead. And that’s a Biblical role, too. In the Bible, John the Baptist was a meteor — but when Christ came along, he said, ‘He must become first, I must be second.’
“So he’s going to be at the front of the parade,” Heddleston says, chuckling, “and then go back around and be at the finish.”
As the new pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, Hobson gave his first sermon in the pulpit on Gay Street on July 1, 1973. His last Sunday in the role — from which he announced a year ago he’d retire in 2015 — will be May 31.
He’s served long enough that, as lifetime church members Doug and Margaret Baumgardner recall, Doug’s father was senior church warden when Hobson arrived — and Hobson just recently baptised Baumgardner’s father’s great-grandchild.
“I think there’s something to be said for how the way we look at the world reflects our relationship with God,” says Doug Baumgardner. “In Jenks’ case, he believes in a God of joy. He’s spoken many times in the past of the picture of Christ laughing. That’s the way he sees the world. He’s very much aware of the pain in life — but he embraces the joy.”
“I felt called to the ministry very early in life,” Hobson says, noting that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as pastors and priests. “A big piece of that was, I found a joy in God that I didn’t see other people enjoying.”
His tenure as what he calls “a militant moderate” brought growth to the Trinity congregation, a small group of 30 to 35 regulars when he arrived that is now pushing the 150-member range. Many credit him with taking many small steps to bring about larger, longer-term results.
Trinity member Bev Hunter recalls, “I wasn’t going to church for a long time. At some point several years back, I find out that Jenks takes people Christmas caroling — a service for shut-ins. So I started riding around with him in his Volvo, filled up with all these singers, going up onto the tops of mountains in the ice, and singing for people who were so happy . . . that tears were coming to their eyes. I said to myself, ‘You know what, I want to join a church that does this.’ ”
Later, when she was “on the verge of death” in a battle with cancer that she ended up surviving, Hunter says, Jenks “came to visit me in the hospital and said, ‘You have to have an attitude of gratitude. I want you to keep a log of everything you’re grateful for.’ And that . . . saved me,” she says.
The Rappahannock News Citizen of the Year for 1992 can be found every year on the Fourth of July on Gay Street in the town of Washington. There he cajoles passers by for a dollar, each of which becomes part of a ribbon of bills stretching toward the Rappahannock National Bank. If the ribbon gets too close to the bank too soon, he winds it up to shorten it — and to keep the cash flowing for the Washington Volunteer Fire Department.
Working on the dollar-bill strip is not all the Rev. Jennings W. Hobson III does for the fire department. He frequently helps prepare the barbecued pork, an overnight project. The fire department is just one of the many organizations the Rev. Hobson has helped out in the nearly 20 years he has been rector of Trinity Episcopal Church.
Washington Mayor John Sullivan says he and his wife, Beverly, were “lapsed Episcopalians” who hadn’t been to church since their wedding years earlier, and who originally went to see Hobson to ask if their granddaughter could be baptized here in the county. “He said yes, right away,” Sullivan recalls. “But later on in the conversation he said, ‘You know, it would kinda be good if you two could show up in church a couple of times before the baptism.’ So we did. And we never left,” Sullivan says. “That is very typical of the way Jenks gets things done.”
Apart (or never really apart) from his work with the church, Hobson’s connections to Rappahannock’s community organizations are equally worth noting. In 1992, he was appreciated by the Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue department for his longstanding support, at first in uniform and later in more comprehensive, fundraising-related ways that continue to today.
Then as now, his work with the community services board to bring mental-health and other services to the county, and with Fauquier County hospital are also frequently cited. So is his active role with the Rappahannock Benevolent Fund, a private charity that helps citizens get through financial crises.
He is leaving after Sunday’s parade for another church-sponsored trip to Trouin, Haiti, where Trinity has been working to rebuild a sister church’s earthquake-damaged school and other facilities.
“I’ve been told that, in his earlier days here,” says Mike Mahoney, a Trinity member with his wife, Bette, “some of his parishioners felt that he spent rather too much time serving the community and not enough servicing his congregation. In the 25-plus years I have known him, I’d say that he got the mix just right.
“It’s not just that he has served the community so well,” Mahoney adds. “It is also that he has served as a model for so many others, both within and without his congregation.”
“He puts his all into everything,” says Trinity parishioner Noel Laing (a former Citizen of the Year himself). “He never holds back, in anything. He is going to be sorely missed.”
Hobson says he isn’t sure what the future holds. He’s retiring as pastor of Trinity, but not as an Episcopal priest — “that ministry will continue,” he says. This leaves his fate in the hands of the diocese — for which he’s played a longstanding active role, much of it as chair of the diocesan council’s resolutions committee, which tackles the church’s most difficult and controversial issues.
Hobson says he and his wife, Molly, a former longtime schoolteacher who has since taken up the violin and performs regularly with the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra in Warrenton, don’t want to leave Rappahannock — but they’re leaving their options open. Their son, Jennings IV, who learned to be an Apple expert at Louise van Dort’s Blue Ridge Mac in Woodville, is now pursuing the technical life in Afton, Va.; their daughter Berkeley, 32, is a full-time firefighter and paramedic in Chesterfield County, near Richmond.
If he stays in Rappahannock, he says, he’ll have to consider his role in the community more carefully, since the church will have new leadership, and he will continue to have strong feelings about the county that’s been his home for four decades — and which continues to change, not always in ways he feels comfortable with.
“I have some concerns about Rappahannock,” he says. “We have done a lot to protect Rappahannock from some of the growth you see all around us. Unfortunately that has made it impossible for a lot of people to come here, or stay here. It’s not that we should do this or that for those who can’t, that’s patronizing. But I think a community that is unbalanced is unhealthy. And we are increasingly . . . not balanced.”
But, Hobson says, “I am privileged to have served the Trinity congregation and the Rappahannock community these 42 years. . . .
“I really appreciate the honor, and it feels good,” he says. “But I’m still human, and I still make mistakes. One of the things about being a minister in a small community that I have always said is, ‘You can’t learn from your mistakes and also not have to live with them.’ ”