The Church at the Crossroads

Walter was a short, extremely thin, balding man with white hair, a scholarly beard, and thin round glasses.  He looked to be in his late 60’s.  His office was a small room full of books.  There were books everywhere: books on the shelves, books on the window sill, books on the floor.  The abundance of books struck me as strange since the dim lighting made the room a terrible place for reading.  Walter’s window shades blocked the mid-day sun and the ceiling lamp was soft.  The office felt like a candle-lit room in the late evening.

It was the spring of 2009.  I had scheduled the appointment with Walter hoping to enlist his congregation’s help with an after-school program I was helping to launch.  Walter was my ninth or tenth meeting with neighborhood church leaders?  They were beginning to blur together.  For the most part the meetings had been pleasant, and I had found a few takers who were willing to advertise the school’s need for volunteers.  The conversations had almost all been the same.  This meeting would be my first shocker.

We sat on opposite sides of Walter’s large, wooden desk.  I got the feeling he was excited to have someone to talk with.  I began the conversation by asking, “So what is life like here at Saint Peter and Stephen’s?”

“Oh, well!  We’ve had a beautiful history,” he said.  “This building housed an English speaking congregation.  Mostly dock workers.  Very blue collar.  All the parishioners lived within walking distance.  No one around here drove cars back then.  A German speaking congregation met across the street.  The two congregations didn’t really get along.  There was a large divide between the English and Germans back then.  But as the neighborhood changed, fewer and fewer people spoke German, so that congregation diminished.  Finally, there were only a handful of parishioners, so they had to sell their building in 1967.

“The gentleman that purchased it, this large unpleasant Polish fellow, knocked it down and constructed a parking lot in its place.  Very sad.  It was a very sad day.  Beautiful stained glass windows, smashed and carted away.  But those Germans, they wouldn’t stop.  As I started mass each Sunday, they would gather in the parking lot across the street and hold their own service.  It was very sad.  Finally a few came…”

“Wait, wait,” I interrupted.  “You’ve been the pastor here since 1967?”

“Oh…hmmm,” he looked up at the ceiling as his mind strained to remember.  “I came in ‘64.  This was my first assignment after seminary; and I have been here since.”

“I bet you’ve got great stories to tell.  You must have really watched the neighborhood change around you.”

“Yes, sir.  That I have,” Walter said with a grandfatherly smile as he leaned back in his chair.  “I’ve weathered a lot of storms.  Troubles have come and gone, but this building and I have stood the test of time.  Everyone else has come and gone.  People have left.  Businesses have died.  The city has grown.  But the building and I are still here.  Would you like a tour?”

“Sure,” I replied.

We both rose and stepped out into a bright hallway.  Walter showed me the fellowship hall first.  It was a large open room on the first floor with a stainless-steel, professional kitchen attached.  I guessed the room would comfortably sit a hundred and fifty at round tables.  There were carts of metal folding chairs and grey plastic tables pushed to one side.  On the opposite wall were long serving windows into the kitchen.  A third wall was home to a small wooden stage.  It was empty except for a microphone and stand.

“This is awesome,” I said with amazement.  “What a great space.  What do you do in here?”

Walter laughed.  “We used to have a feeding ministry here; but we ended that about fifteen years ago.  Now we have Bible study before service on Sunday morning.  The community association meets here as well.”

“That’s cool.”

“Yes.  They are very respectful and clean up after themselves.”  Walter bent down and picked a piece of lint off the floor, crossed the room, and placed it in a trash can.

Following him, I continued, “That’s awesome.  Have you had any luck bringing people from the community into the church?”

Walter’s church building was located on a strategic corner.  His church separated the poor from the gentrifying.  North of his church was an African American community living in low income, government subsidized housing.  South of his church was a neighborhood comprised of well paid professionals who lived in million dollar row homes.

“No.  No.  We don’t have many of those people coming here on Sunday.  They don’t fit.  Do you want to see the sanctuary?”

“Which people?  The rich or the poor?” I clarified leaning so far through the serving window into the kitchen that my feet no longer touched the floor.

“Both.  So the sanctuary?”

“Absolutely,” I said and we headed upstairs.

The sanctuary was huge by downtown Baltimore standards.  I estimated it easily sat three hundred.  It took up the entire second floor of the building.  The ceiling was vaulted and supported by gorgeous wooden arches.  There were stained glass windows from floor to ceiling on the side walls.  The stage had gigantic organ pipes behind it.  The floor was rich hardwood which complimented the old, dark, wooden pews that dominated the space.

We sat together on the front pew and Walter explained to me in great detail how the space had changed over the years.  He told me about how the organ had been shipped in from Germany just before World War II, about the four different pulpits he had used, about replacing the stained glass windows in ‘68, and about how the ceiling needed constant maintenance.  His pride and joy were the pews.  They were original to the founding of the church in the early 1900s.

I couldn’t focus.  Something he said in the kitchen was still bothering me.  Interrupting, I asked, “So you don’t have any neighborhood people coming?”

“No.  Most of our members drive in,” he said perturbed.

“Really? I mean…I’m surprised.  You haven’t made any progress reaching into the community north?  Even though you are hosting their community association meetings?”  I wasn’t surprised Walter wasn’t reaching the yuppies.  Typically, because they didn’t have urgent needs, they were harder to connect with; but impoverished communities in Baltimore were easy to serve and usually wanted to participate in church activities.

“No.  Not really.  Now the altar in the back: that is a special piece.  It was purchased in 1983 with a sizable donation from Marjorie Wellman’s will. I found it at a small church in upstate New York.  It wasn’t easy getting the pastor to part with it.  He had found it while on a trip to France a year before.”

Interrupting again, “I’m sorry.  So what is your congregation like?  Give me the stats.  Basic age range?  Size on a Sunday?”

“Well, they are predominantly older.  We have a few young families coming, but most of the congregation have been members for a long time.  We run about 25 on a Sunday.  More would come if they were still able.”

“Huh,” I said puzzled.  “Why do you think you haven’t been able to reach your neighbors?  Holding the community association meeting seems like a great first step.”

Walter sighed, crossed his arms, and leaned back in his pew.  “Well, they come with problems.”

“Problems?  Don’t we all come with problems?”

“Well. Yes.  Of course.  Everyone has personal problems.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean having them here can be a problem.  They just don’t understand.”

“Understand what?  Are you doing the service in German?”

Walter leaned forward and looked me firmly in the eye and motioned for me to sit next to him on a pew.  “They are messy.  They don’t understand reverence.  They don’t know how to be in a holy place, how to behave in God’s house.”  He leaned back again and cocked his head to the right.  “For example, a few years back there was a man attending named Thomas. I had known Thomas since he was a little boy.  He had never been right.  I don’t know what is wrong with him, but there was something off.  He is probably in his late twenties now, but he still acts like a child.  I have no idea where he lives, somewhere a few blocks north.  I know he lives with someone, but they don’t take good care of him.  He is always filthy.  I don’t think he has changed his clothes in five or six years.  He liked to come on Sunday mornings to hear the organ, but I made him sit in the back because he stank.  We just couldn’t stand to smell him during worship.

“On most Sundays, there was no problem.  I led Bible study down stairs with ten to fifteen congregants, then I went to my office and put on my vestment robes, and then I gathered for worship with our congregation in here.  Thomas sat about fifteen pews back.  He would smile and listen, and be respectful.  He was only a minor distraction.

“But then one Sunday he went too far.  We took the Eucharist like we do every mass. After, I took the chalice and placed it on the altar in the back of the room, and then I returned to the pulpit to lead the congregation in song.  When I looked up from leaded the singing, I was struck speechless.  Thomas had taken the sacramental cup and was wiping his dirty, filthy, disgusting shirt all over it.  I stopped mass right then.  It was the first and only time I have ever stopped a mass in the middle, but it couldn’t be helped.  He had to be stopped.  It was completely unacceptable.  I ran to the back of the room and ripped the cup out of his hands.”

Walter dropped his voice a few octaves to imitate Thomas. “‘I’m sorry,’ he says.  ‘I was just trying to clean it,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to help,’ he says.  I was so furious, so angry.  Why would he treat the sacramental cup with such disdain?  Why would anyone do such a thing?  I couldn’t let him get away with it.  He needed to learn.  He needed to be taught.  So I smacked his hand like you would a child and I screamed in his face ‘This is God’s cup!  God’s cup!  It holds the blood of Christ!  The blood of our Savior!  Get out!  Get out and don’t come back!’”

I sat in silence, my mouth gaping with disbelief.

Walter brushed a wrinkle from his shirt and looked to the stained glass for comfort.  He took his glasses off and started to clean them with a handkerchief from his pocket.  “Thankfully he hasn’t returned.  You see, this is the problem with people today.  They don’t care, they don’t understand, and they aren’t willing to learn.  I accept everyone God brings into our fold, but I realize most people aren’t ready to encounter God.  So I don’t force them.”

My heart was broken.  All I could see in my mind was poor Thomas, head hung low, crying to himself as he left the church.  I fought away tears.  I looked up at the old man until he returned my eye contact.  Then quietly, sadly, I said, “Sir, I’m afraid you may have kicked Jesus out of your church.”

We sat for a moment in silence.  Walter put his glasses back on, folded his handkerchief, returned it to his pocket, stood, looked down on me, and said, “Son, you are young; and you have a lot to learn.”

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