Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: This Side of Paradise (not about the book) (07/14/11)
TITLE: The People's Church
By Emily Gibson
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For reasons unrecorded in the history of the church, the original denomination closed its doors thirty years later, and for a while the building was empty and in need of a congregation. By the fifties, it became a mission church and launched a Sunday School program for local migrant farm and Native American children in the rural neighborhood. No formal church services started until the sixties. By the time the building was sixty years old, so many children were arriving for Sunday School, there was not enough room so the building was hoisted up on jacks to allow a hole to be dug underneath for a basement full of classrooms. Over the course of a summer, the floor space had doubled, and the church lowered back into place. It was allowed to rest on a new foundation, with additional capacity to introduce unchurched children to some of the most loving people this side of heaven.
Over seventy years after its first dedication ceremony, our family drove past the boxy building countless times hurrying on our way to other places, barely giving it a second glance. It had a classic design, but showed its age with peeling paint, a few missing shingles, an old fashioned square flat roofed belfry, and arched windows.
On a blustery December Sunday evening, we had no place else to be. Instead of driving past, we stopped, welcomed by the yellow glow pouring from the windows and an almost full parking lot. Our young family climbed the steps to the big double doors, and once inside, we were immediately greeted by a large balding man with a huge grin and encompassing handshake. He asked our names and pointed us to one of the few open spots still available in the old wooden pews.
The sanctuary was a warm and open space with a high lofted ceiling, dark wood trim accents matching the ancient pews, and a plain wooden cross above the pulpit in front. There was a pungent fragrance from fir bough garlands strung along high wainscoting, and a circle of candles illuminated a small altar table. Apple pie was baking in the kitchen oven, blending with the aroma of good coffee and hot cocoa. It smelled just like how heaven must.
The service was a Sunday School Christmas program, with thirty children of all ages and skin colors standing up front in bathrobes and white sheet angel gowns, wearing gold foil halos, tinfoil crowns and dish towels wrapped with string around their heads. They were prompted by their teachers through carols and readings of the Christmas story. The final song was Silent Night, sung by candle light, with each child and member of the congregation holding a lit candle. There was a moment of excitement when one girl’s long hair briefly caught fire, but after that was quickly extinguished, the evening ended in darkness, with the soft glow of candlelight illuminating faces of the young and old, some with tears streaming over their smiles.
It felt like home. We had found our church and have never left. Over the past two decades it has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that floods when the rain comes down hard, toilets that don’t always flush, and though it smells heavenly on potluck days, there are times when it can be just a bit out of sorts and musty. It also has warmth and character and uniqueness.
It’s really not so different from the people who gather together there, feeling at home for awhile on this side of heaven.
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