Seeing an Old Church with Fresh Eyes
June 11, 2015.
Another memorable date in my spiritual journey.
Last evening, I stepped inside Redeemer Church for the first time since September 20, 2009—the Sunday before a court order allowed the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to claim our congregation’s property—despite constitutional provisions forbidding it.
Courts did not rule the synod was right. They ruled they have no jurisdiction and couldn’t stop them.
No one could.
Locking the doors was not part of the court order. This was the decision of the synod who clearly had no desire to pursue mission in our community. They wanted our land. They got it. They sold it.
My visit was unplanned. I was with old friends. They weren’t church members, although they had visited our church on several occasions—all before going to Africa as missionaries nearly 30 years ago.
We had enjoyed a delightful dinner in an East Falls restaurant. They were giving me a lift home. I was surprised when they pulled the car over in front of the church.
It was dusk. A light was shining from the fellowship hall. “I want to look in the window,” one companion said. “Do you want to come or will you get in trouble?” he asked. He was familiar with my six years of court struggles.
He hopped out of the car. My other friend and I followed. We peeked in the window. My friend started to try the door. I was about to warn him that wiggling the door might activate a security alarm.
The door was unlocked.
He walked inside. My other friend and I followed.
My friend called out. No answer.
It was like entering the remnants of a war-torn city. Six years of neglect have taken a toll on the property our people bought, built, loved and cared for since 1909. Our house of worship. God’s house.
The place smells of abandonment, dust and mildew.
Gone were many of the things we valued. The antique crockery and umbrella stand from the vestibule and most of the furniture from the fellowship hall.
I was relieved that the wooden steps to the stage were there. They were built by a member, long-deceased. His daughter has worried all these years about her father’s offering of love!
My cell phone rang. While I stood in the narthex talking on the phone, my friends ventured upstairs. I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow.
I was aware SEPA stripped the sanctuary of our chancel furnishings—on Holy Thursday, nine months after the closing on an “as is” sale. Members had seen the truck pull up and carry out our baptismal font, the pulpit, the altar, the lectern, the candelabras, the singed altar cross that had survived the 1920s fire, rescued from the flames by my brother-in-law. These will always be the same as stolen to us—taken without the consent of the congregation.
It was getting dark. We weren’t about to turn on lights. My phone call ended. I started up the stairs. The flooring at the foot of the stairs was soft. “Probable water damage,” my friend said.
My hand on the familiar railings was uncomfortable. I could feel the dust and grime of years of neglect. I had occasionally polished these railings. My husband had dusted them every week!
I passed the plaque commemorating Redeemer’s war dead. One of the children of our newer Tanzanian membership had asked me what this was. I told him it was a list of names of members who died in service. When he learned of my mother’s death, months later, he took a piece of chalk and wrote NORMA on the plaque. I looked to see if his touching gesture had survived seven years. I couldn’t tell; it was too dark. Then I realized, this boy, whom I remember as a charming nine-year-old, locked out with the rest of us, is now old enough to drive!
I reached the top of the stairs, I looked across the ransacked sanctuary. I stood in the same spot where for years I greeted the people of Redeemer as they arrived on Sunday morning. I was reminded of the predictable succession. Marilyn was always first. She came early so she could share her considerable weekly worries before others arrived. She was the informal leader of our 80 church visits after we were locked out. If it was Sunday morning, Marilyn was in church. The rest of us went along. She died two years ago and would never see the inside of her church home again. A lifelong, deeply spiritual Lutheran, her funeral was held in a museum where she volunteered. I was impressed that even Redeemer’s young people attended, four years after the lockout, a testimony to the intricacy of our eclectic membership.
I didn’t walk around. I stood in the back and visually assessed the damage caused by eight years of needless fighting, dating back to an awkward meeting with a mean-spirited bishop on November 1, 2007. The paint job, fresh in 2006, was peeling in sheets. No temperature control for seven years will do that.
Redeemer kept both green and red hymnals in our pew racks—(Lutherans know what this means). All the red hymnals (still my favorite for hymn selections) had been pulled out. They are stacked in the back pew. The green hymnals are still in place. Come to think, there were blue hymnals in every pew, too—and a few non-Lutheran hymnals donated by one of our pastors. We used many hymnals—some in English, some in Swahili! Maybe they are among the stacks.
All in all, this sorry sight was not as painful as I feared.
As daylight began to fade, I looked across the sanctuary at the stained-glass Ascension window. I spent a lot of years looking at that window—the backdrop of many family portraits.
I think of it now as the Jumping Jesus window. Our pastor’s three-year-old son had asked, “Why is Jesus jumping?”
Jesus is still looking down from his slightly elevated height at where our altar once stood. He had looked down on me as I stood before that missing furniture with my husband on our wedding day. May 28, 1988. He had looked down on us 17 months later, December 3, 1989, as our son was baptized with water from the missing font, the same font that provided water for my husband’s baptism in 1909. He was the first baby to be baptized in that building.
Today, Jumping Jesus looks a little sad.
The rich colors of the stained glass grew deeper as the sun set. I can’t remember seeing them quite this way before. The lack of sanctuary lights created deeply rich tones new to my old Redeemer eyes.
Our sanctuary was never more beautiful.