This week I found myself sitting in the room where I first learned about Jesus. Where dear old Mrs. Stevens would toddle over to an out of tune upright piano and plunk out Jesus Loves Me and Fishers of Men while we sat on little wooden chairs painted in pastel colors, singing our hearts out and doing the motions to the songs. Where we’d gather at tables and learn Bible stories, pasting cardboard cut-outs of Moses and Abraham onto felt-covered boards. Where at the end of Sunday School, the wooden double doors would open, and our parents would be standing there waiting to take us in to church. (If we were old enough for Sunday School, we were old enough for church and our parents saw to it that we sat there quietly, sang the hymns, and said the prayers. Our boredom or need for entertainment did not factor into the equation.)
Today that old Sunday School room serves as the church’s office, cluttered with paper and boxes of ink cartridges and smelling of the kerosene burner that helps to keep it warm without running up a high heating bill. I was there to pick up homemade Easter eggs a dedicated crew of parishioners makes every year as a fund-raiser. I buy lots of them in a feeble gesture of support and gratitude to this parish for being my cradle of Episcopalian-ism and in appreciation for the ministry they provide to a community that desperately needs it.
Sadly, this church, like the town surrounding it, is not so healthy these days. The spirit is there but the outside flesh continues to weaken. The bell tower needs work and the roof should be replaced. The rector is down to part-time and is already serving past retirement age because, well, it’s going to be hard to find someone to take on the job.
Fifty years ago, this downtown street where the church is located was bustling in the week before Easter. The hardware store sold baby ducks and those awful pastel-colored chicks skittering around under a heat lamp. The women’s clothing stores, of which there were at least four in a two-block area, displayed the latest spring dresses in their windows. Woolworth’s aisles were jammed with Easter candy, and we bought our Hinkle’s egg dye from the owner of the store where it was invented. On Good Friday afternoon, the stores all closed from noon to 3 pm because everyone was in church and of course, no one opened on Sundays except for a few corner grocery stores.
This once vibrant middle-class community now suffers from the same blight affecting others just like it across the country. Industry moved out taking with it the tax base, so property values plummeted. Homes sell for rock-bottom prices, often to greedy landlords who turn beautiful properties into apartments for low-income rentals. Many of the churches my friends attended are empty shells, their scout meetings and choir practices replaced by food pantries and social service agencies. The poverty rate is staggering, and the school district is bankrupt.
It breaks my heart to drive these streets and see the elderly and infirm shuffling along on the sidewalks. The scared kids on the corner, putting up a menacing front. The worn-down young mothers pushing strollers, while trying to rein in another small child or two. To see so many homes in urgent need of repair, to see what were once thriving businesses shuttered and gone or replaced by thrift stores and other earnest and hopeful start-ups—a coffee shop here, a yoga center there, most of which will probably not survive.
I take those luscious eggs I buy from my childhood parish, place them in pastel cupcake wrappers and donate them to the dinner that the parish I belong to now serves every year on Easter Sunday. As soon as the last note of the postlude sounds, we literally take the Good News we just celebrated in majestic ceremony out into the world. We serve dinner right smack in the middle of Easter Sunday to the hungry, the lonely, to first-responders who can’t be with their families because they’re protecting us—to anyone who needs it.
When I place food in front of our guests, I see the faces of the people in my hometown. I like to think that what helps support the church where I grew up, brightens the day, and lifts the spirits of those we serve in our own parish and that what I learned about Jesus all those years ago in Mrs. Stevens’ Sunday School classes still makes sense in the world I live in now.