Sunday, May 27, 2012

Presto Change-o

Since September 2006, our local Orthodox mission has met in an old 1926 schoolhouse.  We own land where we plan to build our own temple.  But right now, we seem to be stuck in design--trapped between an Orthodox aesthetic and what a bank will actually loan us to build it.  So for the foreseeable future, it looks as though we will stay in the old schoolhouse a while longer.

The first schoolhouse was built in 1878, and the adjacent cemetery began a few years later.  In 1939, the school closed--consolidated with a larger district--and the property deeded to the cemetery association.  From the very beginning, the schoolhouse was often used for church services, usually of the Baptist variety, but also of a Church of Christ in the1940s.  In the mid 1970s, an itinerant carpenter/Baptist preacher wanted his own church.  He convinced the cemetery association to allow him to make alterations to the structure.  We never actually went to church there, but attended the annual Memorial Day Services and dinner-on-the-ground, as my mother's people bury in the cemetery next door.  I remember coming home from college one year and seeing the alterations for the first time.  I went inside and remember just wanting to cry.  Gone were the high ceilings and tall narrow windows, as was the pot-bellied stove in the center of the room, and the school desks, and the old picture of George Washington.  What replaced it was a thorough-going bastardization--lowered ceilings, short metal windows, dark paneling and thick, red-shag carpeting throughout.  The carpenter/preacher made his own pulpit--the frame of an old pump-organ covered with left-over dark paneling an topped with more of the red shag carpeting (really.)  The church group installed clunky, heavy wooden pews, with red padded seats.  The crowning glory, however, was a velvet-screened picture of the Last Supper, as well as one of The Sacred Heart of Jesus (though I doubt any of the congregants knew they had hung a Catholic icon.)  He nailed a wooden cross to the wall above the pulpit, and a homemade cross with a clock in the center on the back wall.  And of course, the American flag was prominently displayed up front.  I did not know how to articulate my feelings at the time, other than the fact that I knew I loathed it.

The church rocked along for a while, but fell victim to the inevitable splits and power plays, becoming increasing a make-it-up-as-you-go affair.  A cousin of mine rode herd over the downward spiral, just as her dad had done to a church group a generation earlier.  I was very close to this kinswoman, but realize that had she lived, she would never have allowed us to use the building--for an Orthodox Church, of all things!  But she died--suddenly--in the very room in which she had been born--which had been the same room in which her own father had been born and died.  Anyway, we took over the building much as the church left it, albeit a bit mustier.

We have a good arrangement with the cemetery association.  We do not pay rent, but cover the utilities and insurance and make any necessary repairs.  But once a year, in late May, we have to give up the building to them for their annual meeting.  For many years, the routine was to have a business meeting, then some singing and a quasi-religious service, followed by dinner on the ground.  For many years, my great-great aunt would play the old out-of-tune piano and lead singing [I can still hear her warbling "Tell me the sto-ry of Jee-sus, mark on my heart every word, tell me the sto-ry most precious, Sweetest that ever was heard..."]  The singing and sermon have fallen by the wayside, as most of the old-timers who insisted on this are now gone.  Now, the program usually consists of some talk about the history of the community or its families.  But the 1970s alterations became the new tradition.  Even though the cemetery group no longer puts-on a sermonette with its business meeting, they still have to have their meeting on Sunday, with pews in place and an aisle down the middle.

And so, once a year we have what we call "taking down the temple."  The altar and iconostasis come down.  The candlestands and incense go into hiding.  The saints that surround us go away for a while.  And in comes the paneled and red-tufted pulpit, the American flag, those godawful pews, and of course, the velvet Jesus.  I am anti-pew, not because I am in the OCA, but because every year I have to help inch them down two narrow hallways from the back room where we have them stacked on-end.  And then a few days later, we get to reverse the process.  Mind you, I am not complaining (much), for I realize some mission situations have to do this every time they meet.

After six years of this, we've gotten pretty good at it.  With enough help, we can do it in slightly under an hour.  We usually have plenty of help, due in part to the iced-down beer I bring for afterwards.  I guess you can say that is our tradition.  I attend the cemetery meeting, first because I am their secretary-treasurer, but mainly to protect the mission's interests if something were to come up.  It is the strangest thing in the world to sit in the room that only the night before had been our nave.  Thankfully, I am not subjected to any preaching at these meetings.  There could be no greater contrasts between worship environments.   The starkness and paucity of this reconstituted Baptist chapel is really quite sad.


Steve Robinson said...

Yeah, once a year isn't bad at all. Small price to pay. I did stuff like that every Sunday for years with missions. It gets old fast.

Terry (John) said...

Yeah, I know. I don't mind the taking down of our stuff--it's the setting-up of the pews--and then putting them rigt back that is the pain.