This is the view from a third story window in the church where I grew up. I went to a funeral there a few weeks ago. It was the first time I’d been back in years.
I got there early and decided to walk around a bit, up and down the stairs and halls. It was like walking around inside my childhood self, somehow.
The building is gigantic – four full floors, a tower, a basement, and two impossibly wide stairwells. There is no elevator.
We used to play tag in these halls. The girls would sit on the stairs making friendship bracelets, or saying awful things about whoever wasn’t there. (Church friends are not holier than school friends, I’m sorry to say.)
Once, when I was a teenager, a youth leader at a lock-in led us in a game of hide-and-seek in this cavernous building (most child safety manuals would frown on this now), and had us running up and down, footfalls and giddy screams echoing down the hallways and stairs. It was one of the most thrilling and delightfully spooky experience of my young life — but also felt safe as houses, because it was MY church and I knew it like I knew my own house.
We had a lot of freedom, but there were also limits. Some doors were always locked. There was a six- or seven-foot undercroft with a dirt floor and rats. There was a walk-in safe with a full-size steel door and an antique dial. There was no food or juice allowed in The Parlor (unless no one was looking). We didn’t play hide-and-seek in the sanctuary. I wasn’t allowed to borrow a choir robe to dress up as the Grim Reaper for Halloween.
Still, we knew the location of the back-up stash of butter cookies, we knew when boys fought each other on the back stairs, and we knew there was an unlocked closet with a secret door that opened into the pipe room for the organ.
We also knew there was an unexplainable, undersized door, high in the building, between the fourth and what we called the Tower Room, high above the floor and off a inaccessible wood ledge.
It was always broken and sort of awful-looking. What on earth was it for? I think that once a grown-up got a ladder and brought a bunch of us kids up there to look inside, but I don’t remember what we found. Old costumes? I’m not sure. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have lived up to the horror of our imaginations.
For years, I’ve had reoccurring dreams that take place in this church building. It’s part of the architecture of my subconscious. My childhood friends appear and disappear. Sometimes the church is on fire.
In my favorite dream, I walk up to the third floor and inside a small room. Inside that room is another locked door, then a twisting staircase leading to another door, which leads into a wondrous, secret part of the church, with more hallways and stairs.
Strangely, on this day of the funeral, the room of that dream was unlocked (it was NEVER unlocked when I was growing up) and standing open, just a crack.
With some foreboding, I opened the door and walked in…
As you can see, like many churches, the church of my childhood has its share of messy junk. (Who ever got the idea that “organized religion” was a thing?) Despite the mess, standing inside a room that has only existed in my subconscious was a trip. If I just tore away some of those acoustic ceiling tiles, would I find a door? A stairwell?
I stood there for a while, flooded with that otherworldly sensation. Then I looked through binders of old bulletins, full of the names of people I used to know. I found a stack of ancient black-and-white postcards printed with a photograph of the chancel. I took one. (Maybe two.)
Then, I walked back down the empty halls and stairwells and I went to a funeral.
My understanding of God and Christianity was shaped by the people of my church (this funeral was for one of the most important) and also by this building. It gave me a theological vocabulary of voluminous square footage and secret corners, hiding places and scenic outlooks, polished pews and peeling paint, butter cookies and communion bread, mildew and mystery.