Going to Church
By Paul Newton:
I’d driven past the building for several years. It was tucked away from the road in a way that suggested the entrance must have been on the back side, because the road-side certainly wasn’t inviting. That is, until one morning when I was biking in the neighborhood and decided to give it a closer look.
The old driveway was grassed over, and as I rolled my bike up to the building I was surprised to see it ended with a concrete parking pad that had a handicap parking sign behind it. Almost like the place was only supposed to have one visitor at a time, a handicapped person. There was no evidence of other parking spaces.
The building itself seemed to be in good shape. Stone exterior, slate roof, covered entry with a red front door, but it was clear no one had used it in years. There was a bird nest over the locked door, and as I walked towards the side of the building, I noticed a smooth cornerstone. It read, “I.H.N. THE KING’S DAUGHTERS CHAPEL A.D. 1915 A MEMORIAL OF MARGARET BURGWYN.” Going further around the corner, I arrived at a path to the back door that was almost completely overgrown with what might have once been manicured plants along the side of the building. So large in overgrowth, they masked the three flying buttresses that supported the (yet to be seen) interior expanse. Passing around the bushes, I found the remnants of cactus embedded in the rocks of what seemed to be an old patio area, finally arriving at the back door. A large piece of door jamb lay on the ground, evidence of a previous break-in, and the door had since been screwed shut.
Slightly beyond the door was a window that had been stripped of glass, completely open. I looked inside, finding a remarkably intact room with a shelf and a few lingering hymnals and assorted pamphlets. I could see a small portion of the chapel beyond the rear room, and it also looked in very good shape. Of course, my curiosity prevailed, and I slipped through the open window.
Once inside, my curiosity was interrupted by the sudden worry that I might get caught, but the quietness inside the building was compelling. I walked across the small room to the open door to the chapel. Slowly stepping inside, I was astounded to find a remarkable time capsule. It was as though someone left in the middle of the night, decades ago, and merely locked the door behind them. The pews were all in near perfect condition, though covered in dust. The pulpit was also wonderfully preserved, though years of roof leaks had dumped plaster down in a few places. Directly in front was a short table with a carved message still undamaged… IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME.
Near the front was the skeleton of a squirrel that somehow managed to get in, but never found its way out. I walked to the back of the chapel; further inspecting details to try to guess how long it had been abandoned. 20 years… 25… maybe 30. However long it had been, it was though it still had a watchful caretaker.
Back at the front, I sat down for a moment to reflect, and then noticed one of the old hymnals on the railing that separated the pulpit area from the congregation. When I went over to pick it up, I could see the dust prints on the railing next to it where someone had sat before. Two handprints also appeared to indicate a reflective position of the person seating on the railing, observing the chapel in the quietness, as I now was.
I took the hymnal and sat on the front pew, centered in front of the pulpit. That’s when the lump in my throat happened and the tears started to fall. Not sure why, but it happens to me now and then. You see, back as a teenager in a fundamentalist church, I was taught many rules about Christianity, but they always seemed to be accompanied with fear rather than love. Lots of hell, fire, and brimstone kind of stuff that drove me from the church over 30 years ago. But after 3 decades away, I had been trying to reconnect with my faith, with help of some new friends with a more moderate vision of God.
So there I was, in the middle of this beautiful old chapel, with nothing but silence all around. I cracked open the old hymnal and flipped through the songs. Some I remembered from long ago, but one was an old favorite. Amazing Grace. As that kid long ago, I sang it solo in church once or twice. I looked around once more, making sure I was alone, and then did my best to sing it again. It was my first solo in church in over 30 years.
Sitting there in the silence (now wondering if anyone had heard me sing) I took a few more moments to talk to God while I was there. I mean, actually talk out loud. I thought what better place to chat with God than in a chapel, right? And it’s easier for me to think of God as a friend seated next to me, rather than the God of Judgment I heard so much about long ago.
I wiped my tears, and put the hymnal back on the railing. Maybe the next visitor would also find it handy. As I was slipping back out through the broken window I found myself thinking, going to “church” had a new meaning.