Each Tuesday in elementary school, a different minister from a local congregation would come to our auditorium and preach to us. I don’t remember what any of them said. What I remember is that we always sang a song that I loved, and that I never heard at my church:
Come-come-come-come, come to the church by the w-i-i-ildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the dale.
No spot is so dear to my ch-i-i-ildhood,
as the little brown church in the dale.
The semi-wailed lyrics and the thrum-thrum come-come cadence were both wonderful. But the best part was the mental image of a little wooden church somewhere in a glade, cozy and contained. Like the song, I was having a childhood, and I went to a little brown church, and I was into all things cozy and contained.
Somewhere in every town, not far from Main Street, a Church Street exists. On that simply named street — our forefathers had no use for the highfalutin; they needed landmarks — are churches.
And every church on every Church Street has an architecture that seems to reflect its denomination. The upstanding, no-nonsense, red-brick, white-door, with a straight-up steeple: Baptist. The quaint, stone-walled, shaded, dark-beamed: Episcopal. The windowless, unassuming, tin-roofed shotgun building: AME. The textured-brick, slate-roofed structure with wings and a real yard and foundation plantings: Presbyterian. The white clapboard, dark-shingled, with a portico: Methodist.
Or maybe that’s just how it seemed in my childhood.
Beyond Church Street are churches with interesting, more liberated architecture. Contemporary churches, with angled rooflines; sprawling ones, with covered walkways; spacious ones, with light-filled naves. Churches with their own city-block communities — gym, garden, school, and offices. And my personal favorites: the ones with lettered signs advertising church suppers and revivals, but more often, a quote that shows off personality (OUR CHURCH IS LIKE FUDGE. SWEET WITH A FEW NUTS), offers advice (GOD ANSWERS KNEE-MAIL), or makes a threat (CHOOSE THE BREAD OF LIFE OR YOU’RE TOAST).
I was told as a child that churches were never locked, and although this statement can surely no longer be accurate, the then-truism was a comfort. Here was something definite, absolute, proven, whereas quite a bit in religion — at least to a child — isn’t. Should I need to run away, or hide, or be alone, this haven would exist, with no expectations that I perform, or achieve, or even speak aloud. A weekday church visit — for choir practice, say — is still a grand experience, like seeing a teacher in the grocery store: Even when I’m not there, singing, or praying, or daydreaming during a long sermon, the church is still there. Who knew? Still a holy place, but accessible and quiet. Friendly as opposed to solemn. A pal as well as a parish.
Intricate carvings on wooden or marble pulpits and altars, golden organ trumpets, and immense stained-glass masterpieces are fitting in churches. All are worthy offerings of humankind’s skills as a means of glorifying God. But, oh, for those churches that come out of nowhere — on a country road, or inside a shuttered downtown store — with pottery chalices, a quilt as an altar cloth, and woven baskets for the offering. Pull over. Get out of the car. Hum a little come-come-come-come, come to the church in the w-i-i-ildwood, and try the door. After all, hope springs eternal.