The huge doors creaked as if squealing for mercy every time they swung open. Once passing through the old doors into the dim foyer, the darkness seemed almost comforting. How many times did I cross that threshold? I could probably do some quick calculations and come up with an answer, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the old Methodist church was a significant part of my childhood, playing host for many wonderful experiences of the first 15 years of my life. These memories will remain with me the rest of my life.
I don’t know with certainty how old that building really is, however, I believe it dates back to the late 1800’s. It always was dark and musty-smelling, especially in the basement. The familiar “chonk” every time the old basement door from the outside would open or close still rings fresh in my memory.
When I was very young, maybe four or five years old, the church sometimes held potluck dinners in the basement. Specific memories of the food have faded over the years, but I do remember having a great deal of fun playing with my friend Dana. In fact, at that time she and I were the only kids our age who attended the church. While the adults were gathered in the fellowship hall, we would sequester ourselves in one of the Sunday school rooms down a short hallway. We alternated eating and playing with the assortment of toys stashed in a toy box.
One dinner in particular never fails to give me a chuckle every time I think about it. Dana and I were playing with a fire station with a crank handle on top that produced a very loud fire engine noise. It was my favorite of all the toys. I loved grabbing hold and spinning it for all I was worth. During this particular dinner I chose to do just that during the pastor’s prayer to bless the food. I’ll never forget the almost total quiet of the building, all except for the pastor’s gentle voice, being broken by the wail of the fire engine. I couldn’t help but start giggling. I’m sure Dana was laughing as well, although she at least attempted to shush me so that we wouldn’t get into trouble. I don’t remember if any adults came in to scold us, but it would have been worth it just imagining the startled reactions on their faces as their quiet thanksgiving was interrupted by a shrieking siren from the next room over.
When you’re not even 10 years old, it is difficult to imagine that whatever environment you find yourself in is not only typical of its kind, but is actually the best there is. This was the case with that dank old church. It was a tiny congregation; we had maybe 20 or 30 people on any given Sunday morning service. The attendees took up but a fraction of the huge sanctuary upstairs. We tended to spread out over the rear half of it. For me, it was as natural as anything to have three or four empty rows of pews between you and the next person.
For all its dark mustiness, both in the basement and up in the sanctuary, it was a beautiful old building. The high ceiling of the upstairs foyer supported a large chandelier that helped light the otherwise dim entryway. Rows of large, colorful stained glass windows adorned both sides of the sanctuary, filling the room with the natural light of each Sunday morning.
Two gently sloping aisles led down to the front of the sanctuary to a table with a candelabra in the center. Just as worship service would begin, two people would slowly walk simultaneously down either aisle with brass candle lighters in hand to light its two candles. At the end of the service, the same two individuals were responsible for extinguishing the candles. Dana and I had this privilege on a number of occasions.
Behind the pulpit and the choir loft, in the very front of the sanctuary, hung a picture of a long-haired man in a white robe. I remember one of his hands was lifted slightly as if making a point. One Sunday I asked my mother, as only a small child can do, if that was a picture of God, or of Jesus. I guess she told me Jesus, because from then on it was clear to me that Jesus looked like any other man.
Two sets of creaky stairs, mirror images of each other, ascended from the basement to either side of the foyer. When going upstairs for the worship service, I usually chose the set on the left, the ones just past the only restrooms in the church. They felt more homey, more like they were “mine”. Maybe this was become they emerged nearest the side of the sanctuary that my family always sat on. Dana and her family generally used the stairs on the right, which were situated over the top of a storage room. As one might guess, her family sat on the opposite side of the sanctuary, almost directly across from us. I suppose we’re all creatures of habit; I seldom used the stairs on the right. Even at that young age, something about it just didn’t seem right. Those stairs were foreign to me in a way, not comfortable like “mine” were.
A balcony sat above the rearmost part of the sanctuary. From my earliest memories of the church, I recall that my older brothers played in the band that perched themselves in the balcony during worship. One brother played the trombone, while the other played the trumpet. One of Dana’s older brothers was also in the band, as were a few of the other older kids in the church. My sister often played the organ downstairs in the front, behind the pulpit. I guess after a while interest in the band waned, because in later years, the only instruments we had were the piano and organ. Sometimes I would take the stairs leading up to the balcony, just to see what treasure I might discover up there. The only things I ever remember seeing were a few stands to hold sheet music, and maybe various other odds and ends. No treasure was to be found anywhere.
About 13 years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my mom, I borrowed a key to the church so I could reminisce for a while. Everything seemed smaller than I had remembered it, but much was still the same: the beautiful stained glass, the old Sunday school rooms, and of course, that old musty smell. One Sunday school room looked like it was being used as a catch-all for whatever didn’t have a place. In it I discovered a few of the old toys I remembered playing with (alas, the fire station was nowhere to be found); that truly took me back to preschool days. Then I glanced up at a cork bulletin board hanging on the wall. On it was scrawled my name just as I had written it long ago, and judging by the way it looked, not long after learning to write in cursive. I ran my fingers across the letters, amazed that it was still there.
All these elements of the old Methodist church– the Sunday school rooms, the stairways, the sanctuary, the balcony, as well as the members of the congregation — still make regular appearances in my dreams. Of course, the dreams don’t recreate the exact church experience as it was back then. The time frame is almost always in the present, often with people or elements from my adult life overlaid on those old childhood memories inside the church. What does this say about me as an adult? Is my subconscious brain hopelessly nested in the distant past?
I was sad when my sister told me recently that the church is closing its doors. I guess as members of the small congregation aged and died, without many (if any) new members coming in, it just became a matter of economics. I wonder what will become of the old building now.