Magazine article The Christian Century

Sons and Heirs of Salvation

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sons and Heirs of Salvation

Article excerpt

When I was growing up, my best friend was the preacher's kid. I was merely the son of the chairman of the elders, and therein lies all the difference. Although Andy, my friend, seemed to possess status and privilege that I had to earn, we both were born into a world that was all-encompassing, ail eternal return of Sunday mornings saturating our every word and deed. The church was our world, not only because of the time we spent there--twice on Sundays, Wednesday evenings, vacation Bible school, Saturday activities-but also because it dominated conversation at our dinner tables with both gossip and earnest talk about building funds, bus maintenance and attendance figures. The geography of my youth is populated with church talk and church people. I still measure my world by what took place on 57 North Rural Street in Indianapolis, at Englewood Christian Church.

Andy and I realized early that if we were to make this place our own we would have to become characters in its drama. We learned to mythologize the church through our games, fears and laughter. Our versions of a sacred grove or a magic stone were the yellow stairs, the boiler room, the dark hallway, the fire escape, the rooms we were not supposed to enter and the places we created on our own. The people were also legendary or sacred, like the janitor who stole money and was caught with a special dye that only later made his hands turn purple, or the short, old man who would suddenly stand up during the service and quote Scripture--quotes that somehow were always appropriate. We terrorized the Sunday school teachers because we had no other way of saying who we were. As boys who felt like sons and heirs of authority, power and grace, we had an arrogance that must have made us unbearable. We thought we owned the place, but of course it owned us. That church was the architecture of our spirituality, the shape", touch and feel of what we were supposed to become. By racing through its halls we were seeing if we could outrun it; by climbing onto its roofs we were testing whether we could ever leave it behind. By trying so hard to master it we became such a part of it that we could never let go.

The building was functional, surrounded by old houses without yards and a huge parking lot, an empty symbol of prosperity. In this space, we knew no distinction between the sacred and the profane. Sunday morning was our Saturday night, and the worship service was our playground. We would roll the rubber rings that served as communion cup holders down the sloping sanctuary floor toward the altar table, looking to see what faces would turn around so we would know whose feet they hit. We passed notes, played paper games and tried to sneak the wallet from the purse of the woman in the row ahead of us during one hymn and replace it during the next. When we were very young Andy and his family lived next door to die church, and we spent every Sunday afternoon there. Eventually Andy's family moved to the suburbs, so that our Sunday afternoons alternated between his house and mine, far removed from the church building. We would play pretend games, making up stories of cowboys or gangsters or detectives. We hardly knew which world was real and which was make-believe. There were no limits.

The Rhythmic,punctuation of Sunday morning was even then strange and dreamlike; now it is a world we can neither leave nor reclaim. The church was in the inner city, a step out of time, left behind in people's flight to the suburbs. The people who ran it had once lived in that neighborhood. Now they drove for half an hour back into the city to worship. The church was full of the poor and the disadvantaged, the very people who kept appearing in the Gospels. It did not take me long to realize that my friends at church were very different from my friends at school. When I visited a school friend's parish in the suburbs, the all-white, well-dressed, confident and articulate congregation struck me as unreal, even as it made me question the reality of Englewood. …

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