The little church at the center of our world
By Ken Root
From my earliest days, I remember attending the white wooden Methodist Church in my home town. We climbed a short set of crumbling concrete steps and walked in through a small entry room with a bell rope dangling from the ceiling. Entering the sanctuary, we stepped onto creaky floors that let everyone know you had arrived. It wasn't the original pioneer structure but had probably been built in the late 1920s when the community was fairly large and had some money. There was nothing fancy but the windows were trimmed with small stained glass squares and each had a gothic arch that gave the building an unmistakable religious signature. Pews sat on a sloped floor that descended to a raised stage where the choir sat during the first half of the service. An altar rail stretched across the center where people could kneel in prayer or stand for a special blessing. It was hot in summer and chilled in winter but was a singular place in our lives that facilitated social interaction and spiritual comfort.
Our ancestors brought their religion with them as they moved into the vast and empty frontier of this country. The first public building in most communities was a church. It served several functions, in addition to being a weekly house of worship and it gave the community a center from which to orient themselves to their new world and to interact with their new neighbors. A church was considered holy but it was also neutral ground. People of all economic and social classes could enter as children of God. They had a time of equality as all were preached to the same by a minister who may bring a message of hope and salvation one week and hell fire and brimstone the next.
We moved a number of ministers through that church. Some stayed a year or two and were gone. It was a political job and those who knew whom to give some special attention to always did better than those who were cause oriented or uncaring. It was a fact that a good preacher attracted a larger attendance and netted more money. To kick up the attendance, we would hold revivals to bring in evangelists to stage theatrical evenings and use fiery words to call men and women to turn away from evil (whatever that may have been defined to be) and to follow the teachings of the bible (which was interpreted in many ways).
For those living in rural areas, the weekly effort to get to church was like a pilgrimage. I recall those Sunday mornings when the roads were muddy and my mother insisted that we were going to church. Dad could get a pass if he towed the car a quarter mile from the house to the gravel road with the tractor and was back there again to tow us home two hours later. We had winter adventures when we slid to church and we had spring days when the weather was so good that we rolled down all the windows and let the fresh breeze blow in as we looked at the blooming dogwood and green grass, knowing that Oklahoma's blazing summer would soon mute the colors and stunt the vegetation.
Of course, the most colorful part of the church was its people. I began observing them in my junior high years. Some had a Sunday demeanor that was very different than their weekday disposition. Others were genuine and embraced everyone every day. One farmer had a passion for working with the Methodist men's organization. He would arrange events and coordinate activities with the faithful and the reluctant. He also taught a Sunday School class of middle schoolers and enlisted me to be his assistant. One Sunday morning he got carried away and ran long, so his effort to get to the top of the stairs to make an announcement was delayed to the point that the Sunday School superintendent was through with all proceedings and looking for a person to give the continuing prayer, which is Methodist speak for: "You can't go home now. You must stay for the church service."
The superintendent stood on the platform behind the altar rail and looked out so see whom he could entice to give a thoughtful and lengthy prayer to transition to the beginning of the church service. Every eye averted his gaze. He was becoming a bit desperate with the only fall back to give the prayer himself. He was almost there when he saw a hand waving frantically as it rose from the church basement. It was the leader of the men's organization, pushing children aside and climbing the stairs.
When he hit the top, he was recognized by name as the person who would give the continuing prayer. It was clear from his face that he had not composed himself for this purpose.
He bowed his head and said: "Dear God, bless this wonderful church and bless the Methodist men who will hold their annual hog killing on Tuesday evening, ahead of the pancake and sausage supper on Thursday night at seven-thirty. May those bringing the hogs pull in by the back stairs and all others show up at six o'clock with guns and sharp knives. Amen."
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.