Saturday, April 30, 2011

This is the church, this is the steeple

The tornadoes down South have claimed many lives and loss of property this week.  One of my MT friends mentioned that her home church had been destroyed.  I know well the gut feeling of loss folks have when they hear such news about a piece of property that has made a difference in their lives.  As I mentioned last week, I am blogging for 4 weeks on losses of places - the places that have meant so much to me that it is hard to imagine this earth without their presence.  Last week, it was my alma mater, Lambuth.  This week, it is my home church, Harris Memorial Methodist (later United Methodist) Church.

Above is a bulletin cover, the one I grew up with for so many years.  Harris Memorial was located in inner city Memphis.  It was our home away from home.  With our dad being choir director and mom a Sunday School teacher for years, we were there at every service, Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesdays for choir practice.  With our dad also on the Board, we were there for church meetings.  We were there for Vacation Bible school for a week every summer.  And if that were not enough, we usually stopped by every Saturday with our parents to clean up the pews and replace hymnals in their little holders.  We helped Daddy retrieve choir anthems from the file, take out the anthems from the past few Sundays, and put new ones in their folios.   Harris Memorial was really our home away from home.

Here is a picture of Daddy holding me in front of the church when I was 3 months old:

And a later picture with both my parents:

I have vivid memories of growing up in that church, because back in the '50s, everyone dressed to the nines for services.  Women wore gloves and hats.  At Easter the fashion was intensified, of course, and everything seemed to have a special sparkle and energy.  Every Easter my sister and I got new clothes - I mean ALL new clothes, including underwear and socks and shoes.   New clothes for us was a rare enough occasion that going all out on Easter just made it even more exciting.  When we got to church, we knew that an incredible view awaited us.  Mrs. Grogan, a family friend, took it upon herself to personally decorate the front of the church for Easter morning, with satin drapes, flowers, and tons of Easter lilies.  It was beautiful, and every year it was different.  The whole atmosphere was glorious.  We got to sing the great Easter hymns, and then in the afternoon, we returned to church for a special choir concert (which took the place of the usual evening service).  Sometimes it was a cantata (one long piece of music).  Other times, it was what Daddy called "a mixed-up program" - various anthems he selected to trace the Lent/Easter story, always ending with, of course, the Hallelujah Chorus, where the entire congregation would join the choir in standing.   Those were extraordinary moments that were made possible by extraordinary planning and hard work by our small choir, the one called "the best little choir in Memphis."  Of course, we had the best director!

As my sister Joy and I got older, we made close friendships with the other children in church, many friendships which we maintain to this day.   We especially had a lot of fun on Wednesday night during choir practice, before we were old enough to join the choir ourselves.  We stayed in the Fellowship Hall, supervised by another Mrs. Grogan (the mother-in-law of the Easter decorator), an elderly lady who, I'm sure, was exceedingly bored with having to watch over and reprimand a bunch of boisterous kids who wanted to get into all sorts of trouble, kids who really wanted to play with volleyballs, which made her distraught and anxious because she was always worried we would knock the ceiling lights out.

When Joy and I became of age, we joined the choir, under Daddy's directorship.  The choir room was a small room at the back of the church on the right side as you faced the altar.  I can remember all the ladies taking their hats off and putting them on the shelf, where there was a long mirror so they would fix their hair and make sure their robes were properly positioned.  The sanctuary sloped towards the front, and therefore the choir room had to slope too, so when I ventured forth to the tiny dark bathroom at the end of the choir room, I felt I probably could have gone faster by sitting down and sliding.  Women even left their purses in the choir room - ah, those were the days one didn't worry about people coming in and stealing anything.  There was a red light near the door, and when that light flashed, that meant the organist, Sam, had finished his prelude and was ready for the processional.  Show time!

Before church, of course, there was Sunday School, which involved annual promotions, a certificate, sometimes a new Bible, and then maybe a move to a new room and new teacher.

We met so many interesting people at church, and most of them in my eyes were the old people.  I've always been fascinated with old people, and many times in my life, I have been much more comfortable in the presence of the elderly than in the presence of my peers.  We had one old man who gave away Wrigley gum to the kids.  We had one old lady who always kept a cushion in "her pew."  (Most congregants sat in the same place every Sunday, and we could tell at a glance who was absent by noting the empty places.)  Our favorite old lady was Mrs. Perry.  She was a feisty widow who sat on the second row, gave us nickels to put in the offering, and every once in a while would let me wear her fox stole - yes, with the head and other parts still on it - which at the time I thought was kind of exotic, but now would make me nauseated.   We picked her up for church and took her home.  She lived in one of those big old houses in a poor neighborhood.  It was dark and dank and smelled horrible - for she was the quintessential "cat lady," with cats and kittens running amock, and to this day I wonder if she even had a litter box.  But she was the nicest person.  She always gave us a birthday card, and sometimes made us a cake.  Her only request was that when we sent her a birthday card or get-well card, that we sign it in pencil, so she could erase our name and reuse the card for someone else; her heart was big, but her budget was small.

All our ministers were old as well.  Brother Fletcher was an older man who at one point was trying desperately to increase attendance at the Sunday night service.  He decided to issue a challenge.  If the congregation managed to get a certain number of attendees at a Sunday night service, Brother Fletcher said he would stand at the pulpit and sing - yes, sing - the new hit Beatles song "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."  Of course, we met the challenge, as that was too good to miss.  He obliged, too, swaying and singing right up there at the pulpit.  It was such an incongruous sight that I probably would be thinking I had dreamt it, were it not for its presence in Daddy's home movies.

One year, the church celebrated its 100th anniversary with a huge celebration and return of former members and music and special guests, and we started wondering who our next minister would be.  (The United Methodist Church has an itinerant ministry, appointed every June, and a church may have a minister for a minimum of a year up to several years, then be appointed a new one.)   The neighborhood surrounding the church had deteriorated, some public housing had sprung up, we were surrounded by poor people, and it was obvious Harris Memorial was turning into a real urban inner city church with a mission of outreach.  It was time for a younger pastor, someone with vision and energy and along came Joe.  The youth, by this time adolescents and teenagers, were mesmerized.  He was the first minister we had ever seen in shorts.   He was the first minister we had ever seen who played volleyball.  He had a young wife and babies.  He even dressed up for a costume party! Harris Memorial would never be the same.  Joe Pennel left after a few years.  He eventually became a bishop.

The church declined further. Congregants died or moved away or decided to go to churches nearer their homes.   Crime increased in the area.  The church building became used for mission work during the week and became a neighborhood center Monday through Friday.  The congregants tried their best to invite the area residents to attend the church, but not much became of it, and after a while, it was painfully obvious the church had to close its doors.   As sad as it was, it called for another celebration, and that had to include food, for, as Daddy used to say, Methodists never gather without eating, and so we had a huge service and meal, inviting back all former members, pastors, and guests.  So many former choir members came that the choir loft was bursting at the seams.  It was a bittersweet day.  One piece of trivia that was mentioned was the fact that Ed and I were the last couple to be married in the church.

Here is a scene from our wedding in 1974 when the sun burst through the beautiful stained glass window in the front of the sanctuary:

Our parents were also married in that church in 1942.

The building closed as a site of a worshipping congregation and was taken over by the United Methodist Neighborhood Centers, continuing the mission of outreach in that needy area.  But at least we still had the building there at the corner, the one we remembered from all those years, with its big stained glass windows and towering steeple and precious memories.

Then one day came the horrible news.  During renovation/painting work, a paint can apparently caught fire overnight and the church had burned down.  When I saw it, it looked like a bombed-out building from WWII.  Before the remains were totally demolished, some people salvaged some smoky-smelling bricks for posterity, and one woman salvaged some stained glass and made wind chimes to sell with proceeds going to the Neighborhood Center.  Even in death, Harris Memorial was giving back.

The congregation (who, as we all know, is the real church, not the building) is still close and keeps in touch.  There was, in fact, a reunion just a few years ago, where people could come share their memories.  But more congregants are dying every year, and so many first-witness accounts are dying with them.  The babies baptized in that church became little kids who slept on towels during Vacation Bible School, became bigger kids who played during choir practice and went to Lakeshore camp for a couple of weeks every summer, became adolescents who were wowed by a preacher who was younger than 70, became teenagers who became lifelong friends - and they are now in their 50s, and time, as it is prone to do, marches on.

It's been decades, yet I still can't get over the fact that that building is not there anymore.  I find it sad that our generation will be the last generation to remember what that church was like - the Easters, the Christmases, the potluck suppers, the music, the weddings and funerals and everything that made growing up there such a remarkable time in our lives.  After we are gone, the stories will be relegated to obscure history books, maybe some tales being passed down within families, and some randomly written down as I have done today.  I realize this post is exceptionally long, and I'm not really recording these words for anyone but me and the others who want to remember what it was like to be at the corner of Seventh Street and Looney in Memphis, Tennessee, on any given Sunday morning years and years ago.

RIP, Harris Memorial United Methodist Church.


Joy said...

Made me cry.

Cuidado said...

I feel your love in this piece. The church is not the building but it lives in your heart and memory. It is wonderful that you were married in the church and special to be the last to be wed there.