On Sundays our whole family of six walked to the large brown church a few blocks away from our house on Neland Avenue. That was the church of our growing up as children—my two sisters, brother, and I. There we learned the denominational doctrines in catechism, endured services that stretched a young boy’s patience to unholy extremities, and made profession of faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It was a brick building of weighty memories, and it rooted one’s faith deep in the soil of Biblical teaching.
It was also, for all its virtue and profundity of doctrine, a ponderous church. Not too long ago, on a weekday, I found myself, by no clear decision that I can remember, driving out of my way and turning into the parking lot of that church. A few minor amenities had been added. Fancy glass doors replaced the heavy oak ones on an expanded narthex, that sort of thing. I crept in a side door, one I remembered running out of after Wednesday catechisms hoping I would get home in time to get in a baseball game or shoot some baskets before dinner.
The narrow, dark hallway confuses me. A state-mandated elevator had been added, disorienting me slightly from expectations. I found my way to the door leading to the sanctuary.
Here nothing had changed.
Tentatively, I climbed the steps to the chancel—the better to see the sanctuary, I told myself. And I could see it all. I flashed back all those years. I found the spot where we usually sat, way back in that hot, stuffy alcove under the balcony. The church was always hot. During the sweltering summer days no breeze touched the alcove through open windows. In winter, the janitor jacked up the boiler, trapping heat there like an incubator.
With the tendency common in those days among families with four children and restricted means, I acquired my first suit in seventh grade, but it was deliberately purchased several sizes too large so that it would last a few years. A suit, after all, was a major investment of capital, not one to be taken lightly. Standing high in the chancel, I could see myself there in the alcove, twitching and sweating and itching in that loathsome green wool suit. It seemed I could almost see my mother reach over and pinch me on the leg as my squirming escalated beyond reasonable bounds. My father, who kept a generous store of pink peppermints in his suit pocket, passed a few my way. I wasn’t, of course, allowed to chew gum. That would be irreverent.
Curiosity compelled me. I had once thought of being a pastor. Then I took a semester of Greek and said, Thank you, Lord, for changing my mind. But now I couldn’t resist.
I climbed to that high old pulpit, the wood dark and stern, and looked out over a sea of imaginary faces in the shadows of that sanctuary. I looked once more toward the alcove, saw that young boy who, unknowingly, also suffered from ADHD, and said softly, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give to you, and to all those whom you love, his peace.”
I was quite sure nobody saw me leave.
I left, however, feeling I had been in a sacred place, a place where people had, for so many years, come to meet God. Somehow these old dark-paneled walls, the austere lights suspended from rafters, the huge, ornate wooden pulpit, even the alcove, had housed the Holy Spirit.
That was the church where I grew up. Twice a Sunday, the family walked on pristine streets—the grass fresh from Saturday mowing, the houses small but neat clapboards—to that church. There, I learned elementary doctrine and suffered through catechism. But every few months or so, we went to another church. I didn’t understand then why my father bundled us into that old black, turtle-shaped Ford of his and ferried us down to where the streets turned sullen and then turned into a small, intensely-weathered building to which was affixed a sign: True Light Full Gospel Baptist Church. I think that now, many years later, I am beginning to understand.
There is no need to describe the detritus of the streets. This was a place where no people I knew of went. Around the corner on Grandville, some houses really did have red porch lights in those days, although most were turned off by the time services started at True Light.
Inside, the building was as neat and orderly as its age allowed. The tiny narthex gave way immediately to narrow rows of pews, holding maybe six to eight people per pew. Our family was large enough that we took a pew to ourselves, usually near the front where a flight of seven stairs led up to the platform, the baptismal font, and the lectern.
The service progressed more by accident than liturgical direction. I believe they were quite lengthy, but I really don’t remember. The choir, clad in ochre robes, ascended the stage, belting out handclapping tunes directed from an old upright piano in the corner. I can’t remember singing. I didn’t know the tune, and I kept my hands in my pockets while they clapped. It seems strange to me that now, these many years later, I still hear one of these songs squirm to life in my brain, and if I’m not clapping my spirit seems to sway a bit.
We are, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed at the close of The Great Gatsby, like boats beating against the current. For Fitzgerald, the river of time was something one could not escape; the past keeps tugging no matter how hard you beat the oars to escape it. And for Fitzgerald, the consequences were most often tragic. He found nothing redemptive in his life. At the end, his own past seemed swallowed up with alcohol, his once powerful talent a seedy spectacle of itself. All one can do is beat that little boat, trying to stay abreast of life’s desolate tug on the spirit.
I don’t like to think of the past that way. Surely there have been times I would just as soon forget, even excise from my memory altogether. Nonetheless, I am more drawn to the conclusion of Willa Cather’s My Antonia than that of Fitzgerald, for Cather speaks there of the “precious, incommunicable past.” We are shaped by our pasts; if we persist in denying the shaping events, we deny a part of ourselves.
So it was for a time during those teenage years that one’s thoughts would turn almost exclusively to oneself. We grow up; we seem to grow out of our past—even the traditions that shaped us. So too we grew out of those irregular trips to True Light Full Gospel Baptist Church. We older kids started attending different churches with friends, even boyfriends or girlfriends. It was a time for seeking new paths to the old truths of the Gospel.
During my college years during the unsettled sixties, when fear and anxiety seemed to hover like a dense cloud over national campuses, I occasionally attended services at different churches with my older cousin, also a student. Invariably our path gravitated to the old inner-city churches. There seemed to be something authentic, enduring, in those obdurate and begrimed edifices. So too in time we found our way once again to the end of Hall Street down by Grandville at the True Light Full Gospel Baptist Church. To a casual glance, much had changed. The streets were even seedier. Rusted autos, stripped of wheels and tires, canted toward the gutter on concrete blocks. A startling number of houses were burned out by riots of a summer before. The city had nailed plywood over vacant windows and doorways, much of it already stripped away.
The church had, however, changed not at all. The tiny narthex still exuded that sweet, musty smell of old wood; the pews seemed even narrower now to adult eyes. We sat in the second row. In the first row, six per pew, sat the twelve church elders, clad in dark suits, shoes buffed to a deep gloss, white shirts starched as hard as polished marble.
Having become accustomed to inner-city churches, we each had a two dollar roll of nickels in our pockets. We were students, after all, and the plate came around every fifteen minutes or so for random offerings. The service proceeded routinely, or so we thought and despite our wonderment of the dark-clad elders, arranged like a phalanx of the guardians of the truth, the way, and the life before us. The old wooden pews seemed to hold the rump prints of countless generations who had worn their way to this holy place where, one believed, the eternal flashed into the temporal and God’s spirit sat among us.
The choir sang. Pastor Butterworth preached. His large voice wrapped the body of worshippers whether in a whisper or singing proclamation. His message was the power of that voice, the heartfelt rhythms of it that sailed each word forth on a holy wind. I understood, then, why I loved to come to this drab little holy house at the end of Hall Street. I understood why my father took us there. Here the liturgy, formulary, and doctrine were eclipsed by a divine meeting with God. Here one fell before the burning bush and cried, Holy!
When the preaching was done, the service was not. I had hardly noticed the slight young man at the end of our pew. Oddly, when Reverend Butterworth called him forward—“Robert Lee Butterworth, my son, will you join me at the altar?”—and I saw the dark sheen of his worn green suit, I felt a sudden shiver convulse through me. I saw myself at the end of the pew, in that hatefully-hot green wool suit.
But Robert Lee, about my own age I figured, stepped forward with a smooth grace. His face betrayed no emotion, neither fear nor discomfort. Rather, serenity bathed him like a nimbus as he climbed the seven steps to the altar. “Altar” may be a strange term. It was only a wooden platform and an open baptismal font. As Robert Lee ascended the stairs, two elders fell in place behind him, flanking father and son behind the baptismal font. The choir by the piano stood, softly intoning words or humming melodies. The choir was smaller than I remembered, but the ochre robes were the same.
We are soldiers
in the army.
Reverend Butterworth was speaking, but my mind was transfixed on Robert Lee, hands loose at his sides, his face uplifted, expressionless. I thought of Stephen. When he saw Jesus at the right hand of God, he simply announced the fact and died under a hail of stones. What did Robert Lee see? Something I longed for? Something I would never, but always hope to see?
Then Reverend Butterworth stepped down into the baptismal font. So that was why the altar was seven-steps high. I hadn’t guessed the font would be so deep. Water rose to his chest as he lowered himself down into it. Then Robert Lee, for the first time with a smile on the thin, dark angles of his face, stepped down. The water rose into little rivulets from the font, splashed across the altar, and dripped down onto the worn floorboards of the church. When the two attendant elders followed, the rivulets became streams. The choir sang with heartbreaking melody, taking notes from deep within and letting them soar among the rafters of the church. As one body, the remaining ten elders stood and walked to the altar. Some of the old ones, gray hair like fleece upon their dark heads, wept openly. More of them climbed down into the font, laying hands on Robert Lee’s head and shoulders. Those who couldn’t fit in fell to their knees by the rim, some prostrate with tears. Water overflowed the font in small rivers now. It splashed on the floorboards. Little eddies worked toward the second row. I bent quickly and dipped a finger in.
Grace like a river. Let it flow.
In my room that night, I wouldn’t do the things a college student had to do. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t study. I couldn’t think about papers to be written or tests to be studied for. I thought of the river. I thought of grace. I thought of Robert Lee Butterworth—my age—walking into the river of grace and, held in his earthly father’s arms, being lowered fully under, immersed, bathed.
It was a bit over two years later that my mother sent me a clipping from a local newspaper. I was married now. I was in my first year of graduate school and facing regular skirmishes with the draft board, soon to end in my being drafted into the Army. This was 1968, the most unsettled year in perhaps the most unsettled decade of our century.
The clipping was not lengthy. It was headed by a portrait of Robert Lee Butterworth in his Army uniform. It was an obituary notice: Killed in action in the Republic of Vietnam.
I wonder still what Robert Lee saw as he looked upward from the altar, as he bathed in grace in the baptismal font.
The small church isn’t there anymore at the end of Hall and the corner of Grandville. In a long overdue effort to rejuvenate the inner city, the local government bulldozed the burned-out homes. Habitat for Humanity has constructed dozens of neat, well-designed homes to replace them. True Light Full Gospel Baptist church moved to larger quarters—a red brick building in another part of the city. I drove by it once. They had a new pastor listed on the sign.
I drove on with my memories.
John H. Timmerman is Professor of English at Calvin College.