We’ve gone to visit the old prairie church in the country between Hanover and Newscastle. It’s been closed for twenty, thirty years, no one seems to agree, exactly. But a long time.
I love these old churches. The plain, white board sidings, the simple, open sanctuary. The wooden altar. I like to look at the woodwork, on the ends of the pews, if there is any, or on the altar. Some of them you see a very plain cross carved and the center and that’s it. This one, you can see that whoever carved it took some liberties, the cross sticking off at an angle at the top, the Bible open at the center and surrounded by flowers at the bottom. It’s not the ornate carving you might see at a cathedral in a big city or one of the famous cathedrals in Europe. Some people might look and see the flaws in it, the cross not quite straight or the mark in this one flower, where it looks like a tool maybe slip and took a bite out of one of the lily’s petals. Someone might say the design is too ornate, or it’s clumsy. I look at it and see something else, someone sitting in his house or his barn, probably, a cold room in winter, patiently carving these shapes that only he can see and making them appear in the wood. Long days and maybe even nights, while winter passes. I would expect it is winter, because who has time to carve during the short summer when there is so much work to do?
People really love to visit these old churches. Sometimes people pull into our church, Hope Lutheran in Jericho, and they want to know if we know of any country churches. It happens enough that I’ve started to keep a photo album of some of the pictures I take of them. I like the idea of showing them that even though the church is fading out of so much of peoples’ daily lives, it really is one of the foundations for life out here. People came out and put up houses on their homesteads, and then, as soon as they could, they put up churches and schools. It was one of the first parts of making a place.
I like the simplicity of these old churches, but I used to wonder if that’s why so many people are interested to see them. Because it’s not like people like build churches like this, if they have a choice. Look at our church building. It’s brick, not white wood, and square and modern, at least modern from the 50s, when it was built. The altar is on an elaborate rise and my pulpit is raised up in the corner and finished in three different tones of varnish. It’s a beautiful place to worship on a Sunday morning. But it’s nothing like this.
I grew up in a little town in northern Minnesota that had its second life at around the same time my church was built. It had started off as a lumber camp, back when the area was thick stands of old white pine. That was long gone by the time I came around. I used to hear passed-down stories about it. The town probably would have died off, but then it had a second life in late 40s and early 50s as a summer resort place and a hunter’s haven. The town was set between two lakes, and there were a couple other large ones close by. There were camps on the lakes, camps like they used to have, where people stayed in cabins and ate in a big dining hall. People went fishing during the day, or swam in the lakes. I don’t know if it ever did well, but by the time I was growing up, people were not driving up from the Twin Cities and packing the lakeshore like everyone hoped. I think it was the wrong thing in the wrong era. We had enough people come through we could keep it going. My childhood I remember painting, painting, painting over all the weathered wood of that camp, the sides of the cabins, the splintered railings on the lodge, the railings on the docks, the signs. Painting everything a deep green that they called forest green but that didn’t look like any green I ever saw in the woods. And brown, a kind of maroon brown you see everywhere at resorts, the color they paint picnic tables. Painting so that you wouldn’t see how run-down everything was. I don’t think it fooled anybody, but that was my life, painting everything the color of picnic tables so you’d know you were having an outdoors experience. All that work, all the time with no rest, it wore my mother completely down. Winter and summer, trying to keep us fed and clothed and keeping the place nice enough that people would come back. They managed to do it until I left home. Someone eventually bought it and tore it down and built nice vacation houses for executives from down in the Twin Cities. All those years we were working so hard but at the wrong business.
I didn’t plan to go into the ministry. Growing up, during summer season, we worked every day, including Sundays, so my family weren’t regular church-goers. We went when our camp wasn’t busy with families in the summer or hunters in the fall. When we could. I wasn’t exactly religiously inclined. I remember complaining about having to go as often as I ever went willingly. Although I may have just been mimicking my dad. He didn’t ever want to go either.
What I did plan was getting out of that miserable little town that was dying, going to the big city where I had always imagined so much was happening. I had always thought, if I could just get to the Cities, where all our guests came from. They all had nicer cars, and in the dining room they talked about things they missed back home and it sounded great. I used to talk to kids who were staying with us who would get bored at the camp and complain they were sick of swimming or fishing and there was nothing left to do. I’d tell them they could play in the woods, I could show them things to do, but they would say that was boring. They’d tell me about things they would be doing if they were home, things like riding their bikes to places in the city, watching TV — we couldn’t get TV up there. Playing games with all their friends. I didn’t hardly have any friends. I was stuck out at that rundown resort on the lake, always working. I just wanted to get away from that. I thought if I could just get away everything else would solve itself.
I really followed one thing to another. When I was younger and my faith was stronger, I used to say that God led me slowly to my path. Now, I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t admit my faith isn’t what it was. I don’t shout that down from the pulpit. But I do confess it to people in town, here, when I’m with them. I say, “It’s all part of the journey.”
Some people I knew at school came with a plan in mind, to become a doctor or a lawyer, or a teacher. Or they wanted to run a business. I had no idea. I had no plans. What I knew I had to do was work so that I could pay for the parts of my education that my scholarships didn’t. Thanks to all my experience at the resort, I got a job at a mission downtown, what they would now call a homeless shelter. I fixed up beds at night, got people settled. You might think the work would be completely different between a resort and a homeless shelter. It isn’t, really. You’re getting people a decent meal and a place to lay down for the night. Some because they don’t want to do that for themselves, because they’re on vacation, and some because they can’t.
I was always interested in people. Growing up, I talked to all of our guests, even though Mom told me not to. I wanted to know where they came from, what they did, what kind of time they were hoping to have at our resort. I wanted to know so I could help them have that, whatever kind of fun or outdoors experience they hoped to have. The guys that came to the mission, I used to talk to them, too. Some of them wouldn’t talk so much. It’s not as easy when the story isn’t seeming to have a happy ending, or at least a happy middle. A lot of them were there because they had done things they weren’t so proud of. I used to talk to them. So many were hopeless. I tried to think of things I could say to get them to see a different side of things, maybe a more hopeful side. I don’t know why I was so intent of teaching these guys to have hope. My whole life up to that point, we had gotten through terrible years with hope, a hope for things that didn’t usually happen. Hope in pretty empty things, when you looked at it, and maybe that’s why we never looked at it. It seemed like the right thing to do, even if there’s no real reason to think that things will ever be “better,” or maybe I should say, “easy.” We are always hoping for a happier, easier time, but I’m not sure that ever happens. But we still have to do it, that’s what I would tell these guys. I found myself telling them things I had learned in church, things that were maybe just words to me up until that time. Words that you said in a church on a Sunday but that didn’t mean anything once you walked out the door and you went back to painting, or whatever you did. This was different. Talking to those men, the words I said suddenly seemed to mean a lot.
I managed to go through four years of university without any idea of what I would do after. I didn’t have much of a purpose. I got a great education, and maybe that’s all education should be, a time to understand more and stretch your mind, not to get you ready for a job. But then the day comes and you graduate and you have to think about a job.
It’s pretty typical for people in the ministry to talk about a moment when you were “called.” I don’t know if that’s a Christian thing only, like we all have to have our experience like Paul on the road to Damascus, where suddenly we are struck and struck blind, and we go off, like Paul did, to the inn to recuperate, and realize we need to devote ourselves, give our lives over. I don’t know if that always happens, but you can talk to just about any pastor or born-again Christian and they have a story like that to tell you. People think it’s important to have a story like that, if you’re going to be convincing others that they should dedicate their lives, too.
I don’t have a story like that. When it was time to graduate, I was still working at the mission, wondering what I would do next. I had grown to love the men that passed through the mission. Some of them I saw, now and again, year after year. Some would stop coming, and I’d ask and learn that they had moved on, to another city, another place, hoping to start anew. Some, I would hear, had died on the streets, or been taken away. So I was thinking about psychology or social work. We had social workers and psychologists that came to the mission and talked to the men. I don’t know how much it helped. Most of the guys just got mad at whatever advice they were giving. Or they told stories. “Do you know what that counselor asked me? She was asking me about my mother. Nobody asks me that stuff about my mother.”
Then one day I was at work and one of the fathers that ran the place was asking me to keep one man out. He came a lot and there always seemed to be fights. We always had to move him. The father wanted me to find a reason to not let him in. I said, “But if you’d just talk to him …” But he wouldn’t. I thought to myself, “Well, I would talk to him …” And that’s when I started thinking about going to the seminary. People like to say, “God led you there.” I used to say that. But I look at it now and would say, probably more honestly, that it was just my ego. My pride. “Oh, I can do this better than you can. It’s you that is the problem here, not the man who’s homeless and who is coming in here for the twentieth time smelling of stale wine and with a short fuse that is going to blow up into a fistfight with someone in the next hour or two, if he doesn’t like the meal or he doesn’t like the channel on TV that someone has turned on.”
So I joined the seminary. And I fully thought that when I finished, I would be going to work in a mission like I had been. But the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America thought I should go somewhere very different. Rural North Dakota. I wasn’t happy. The city hadn’t turned out to be the place I had imagined, back in that little dying town I had left for good at eighteen. It wasn’t beautiful and it wasn’t better and exciting like I had thought on bored childhood afternoons, when there was just the lake and the rundown cabins and my rusting bicycle and not much else to do. But there were people, lots of left-out people, and I could help them. I said to my bishop, “I came to the seminary so I could work with the needy, not go out to the quiet in the country.” He said, “There are just as many needy people out in farm country. They’re just not going to come complaining to you about it. They won’t tell you they need you. But if you get to know them and get them to trust you, you’ll see. I tell that story and people say, “See? He was helping you find your calling.” I look at it and I think, I’m just like a sheep. A door around me opens and I walk through it.
So that’s why I’m out here. My church still fills up, mostly, on Sundays, although it’s shrinking. You look back through the records and you see. The older families are dying off or leaving, and there are younger ones, but they don’t support the church like their parents did. They come on Sundays, but they don’t come during the week. They put a few dollars in the plate, but they don’t tithe, they don’t give as much of what they have. Eventually the church won’t be able to survive. Hopefully that’s still a long ways off. Hopefully we don’t become like this church, even though it’s beautiful. Sometimes I wonder why we find these old churches beautiful. Like I say, they aren’t what we build when it’s time to put up a new one. So what is it we see? Sometimes I wonder if it’s a connection, something in our past, that we’ve lost. One of the people in my congregation told me she thought they remind us of our fragility. That we build beautiful things and then they’re gone. That we shouldn’t hold on too much, to what we have, to the way our life has been. I think I got a good sermon out of that idea.
But I don’t think it’s right. When I look at a church like this, I don’t see fragility. I see strength. Strength that led people to buy this lumber and haul it out here, when they had so little between. Strength that made them build a high room and a high steeple, to stand against the wind. Strength to sit through cold winters and patiently carve this alter, work the wood into pews. This church hasn’t had any care in twenty, thirty years and it’s still standing tall and quiet. Someday the roof will fall apart enough that the wind will get in and pull the building apart. But it’s stood up now for a lot of blizzards, strong winds, spring storms that blast across the prairie.
But you see that even strength passes. It was strength that built up all these small towns. I’m not sure the strength is still there to keep them in place. I’m just not sure. My bishop was right. There is a lot of need out here, even though it won’t raise its hand and speak it’s name because what people want to find together is their strength. But even that will pass, maybe sooner than we think.