The church I grew up in seemed to stretch into the clouds. The main bell tower had stained glass windows, but I never knew where the light filtered into. What felt like a hundred stairs led up the main entrance where all the adults walked in, while the youth used a side door with a spiral staircase down into the basement, complete with basketball court and small kitchen space. The basement filled the entire footprint of the building, with rooms that I spent many Sunday mornings, and others that I don’t remember ever seeing. The main youth room had foosball and pingpong games in the back, and bean bag chairs piled into the corners. Folding chairs were used to try and sort the teen and preteen chaos into educated structure so that kids eyes would be on the leader and screen up front (even if our minds were still on those games in the back).
For the kids who were still in elementary school or younger, life was a mix between the grown up space above and the cool kids down below. If you were lucky, a big brother or sister might take you downstairs for a while before service, to pretend to be one of the big kids. If you were like me, an only child until 12 and then the oldest, you were taken up the stairs instead to sit as still as possible on one of the long wooden pews while the grown up talked a foot above your head (literally and figuratively). My earliest mornings were spent in a row between my mother and grandmother, with my grandfather’s stern eye warnings farther down and then the aunt that I thought was so cool because she had a trampoline. My mom would brush my hair to tame the curls down to the tips, and convinced me that the dress and shiny shoes meant I was a princess, which also mean no playing in the grass outside. With a swing set in the yard, those warnings to stay clean had very little impact. Whats a little dirt when you are trying you fly over the bar.
If I was able to stay still enough and quiet enough, the reward was a cookie in the Garden Room after service. Once service was over, the slow march out of the sanctuary was almost more than this little one could bear. All the grown ups needed to talk and catch up and make plans for something happening that week. While stuck at their waist height, I desperately wanted to slip through the throng toward my cookie and lemonade reward. But that stern look from Grandpa reminded me once again that this was church, not the playground (at least not yet). After what felt like an eternity, the crowds would drift close enough to the bright light of the Garden Room so I knew I could escape without consequence. A long table in the middle of the room had lemonade at each end and three plates of cookies in the middle. It was so sad if there were no chocolate left, and practically an epic tragedy if I accidentally chose a raisin cookie by accident. (As a grown up, I question the value of these imposter cookies and their cruel visual similarity to the superior cocoa option). Cookie in one hand and juice in the other, I went to find my family who often had landed at a circle table where Grandpa talked with leading men of the city and the women of my family connected with other moms, or that was the view from three-feet.
In between the long periods of sitting on the pew and the journey toward chocolate was the Jesus portion of church. It started with an invitation from the pastor for all children to come sit on the stage stairs with him for the children’s sermon. The man in long black robes, with a colorful sash around his neck would come down from behind the podium to sit among us. As a teacher’s kid, and if I’m honest teacher’s pet, I would seek out a spot near the top so that I could be ready to answer the question and be seen looking so adorable in that dress and shiny shoes. One week the pastor asked us if we knew what our names meant. A wave of shaking heads flurried across the stage. Since I was sitting right beside him, the pastor asked my name then looked it up in a book of names to find its meaning: a pearl. With great pride I used a thumb to pull out the necklace I was wearing that day which had a chain of (fake) pearls on it. I had managed to fit into his lesson quite well that day. He went on with another few kids and then explained that our names were special, just like we were, and that each one had meaning, that each of us had meaning to our parents and to God. After a few minutes on the stairs we were released to Sunday School where we would learn the same lesson as the grown ups, but with crayons and coffee filters instead of a 30 minute sermon. We would be back during the final songs and in time to walk that slow slow walk toward the cookies.
My childhood church was more than the epic bell tower, silver swing set, the room full of wooden pews, and the cookie platters. I did not understand how much more until years later, after I had moved away and experienced churches that had none of those things. I have not been back through any of those doorways since high school, and when I drive by now I don’t think I want to. As incomplete as my understanding of that place was, and probably still is, its also beautiful in its sweet simplicity. The best part was a swing set. The worst part was the wrong cookie. And there was some Jesus in the middle.
#52sparks is my year-long writing series based on an art prompt challenge. The title is inspired by a quote from Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “We are the spark, that will light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down” (Poe Dameron). The spark that lights a fire to toast a marshmallow or to ravage a forest begins in the space of an inch. So just imagine what hundreds of inches and words can do.