Sunday, July 24, 2005

Church of my Childhood

It was the place where I first came to know God, that little country church of my childhood. Located on the north side of a quiet highway outside of Wichita, Park Methodist Church was the beginning of my lifelong spiritual journey. A small, white wooden structure, it sat along a hedgerow and in the middle of a grassy lot filled with wildflowers. The gravel drive wrapped around to the side where familiar vehicles parked once a week. A few concrete steps framed by iron railing led quickly up into a small vestibule where coats hung on winter mornings and smiling faces greeted one another each Sunday. A narrow and winding stairway curved down to the east, turning north on its descent and led to the open basement which housed a small kitchen and partitioned Sunday School rooms.
Outside, several yards to the north, was a rickety outhouse, faded from the sun and always an adventure for us children. On the east beneath the hedgerow was a propane tank, cool to the touch, the church key housed within a black magnetic box and hidden along its silver leg.
Inside, the sanctuary was small, yet open and very light. My family always sat in the same place as was customary for all the members of the church. Our unofficial "reserved" seat was in the second pew from the back along the southeast wall. My parents, four of my siblings and I sat in the same order each week while my oldest brother played the organ at the front of the church. My parents sat with several of us sandwiched in between as my father's sudden switch in octaves during hymns tickled my mother. I felt a benefactress in this situation since I was the one who got to sit beside my dad, singing from the purple hymnal and feeling warm and loved. My mother often passed us little Bible books to read: Noah's Ark, Joseph's Coat of Many Colors and my favorite - Baby Moses. These entertained us on many days when sermons grew long and little legs grew restless.
A large floor register was at the end of our pew, warming us on the cold, frosty mornings of winter and the sun streamed through the east window, dancing across our laps and basking each face in a celestial flow. On dewy summer mornings the birds could be heard outside of each open window; a sound I've always thought was so close to God. There was no air-conditioning or central air so when it turned hot we would use hand-held fans made of heavy paper, depicting colorful pictures of Jesus. Ridged, wooden popsicle-like sticks were attached to the backs, making them easier to grasp.
Back then worship began first with Sunday School following. The adults took turns reading inspirational passages after the sermon so that the transition between the two services flowed smoothly and without digression from the message. My father often read these verses and I admired him and listened carefully as he was not one to relish being in front of people.
Downstairs at Sunday School my mother's quiet voice read us stories as we passed around the small envelope designed to hold our precious dimes of tithing. We sat at small, wooden tables feeling close and safe in the knowledge that as both teacher and mother, she had the inside scoop on the lessons we were to learn. It was here in this little country church that I took my first communion. It seemed forever before my parents felt I was ready and I would sit listlessly and enviously in the pew with my little brother as the other members of my family went to the altar. And when it finally came my time to join my older siblings and parents at the front, I was excited and humbled to have stepped over the threshold from observer to participant in this important and holy part of the service and my life.
Cleaning the church was delegated to a different family each month and when it was our turn, dust rags, mops and the smell of lemon filled the sanctuary as we worked together to make it sparkle. For us younger kids, the highlight was bravely retrieving the front door key from underneath the propane tank. At one time a black spider had woven a web next to the magnetic box and we would half hope, half dread we would find the eight-legged creature scurring across the silver tank.
Various holidays found us wearing paper hats shaped like daisies, reciting poems and singing songs. And once a year at Christmastime the beautiful alto voice of Margaurite Faulk filled the sanctuary as she played her guitar and sang. The most anticipated moment on those Christmas mornings was after church when bags of colorful, ribboned candy were passed out to the small number of children from our congregation; a treat in a time when such sweets were not commonplace.
There were fun-filled Halloween parties on chilly autumn nights, songs about Gabriel resonating from the partitioned school rooms and quiet moments for prayer and reflection. It was always comforting to look around at the small congregation and see the same loving faces in the same places each week, knowing that though few, they were loyal both to God and to one another. We were not only members of the same congregation, but neighbors and friends who helped each other seven days a week. Through their example and living in a loving and giving home, I learned that though it is important to have a church and attend it every Sunday, it's more important to establish a church within our hearts and attend it every day.
What a wonderful and lasting memory, this first little church; an integral part of my life that set the tone for my faith. It was a spot so dear to my childhood, and to the adult that I have become.

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