The church building was small – no more than 1000 square feet all told. My granddaddy’s name is on the cornerstone, along with the date – 1941 – when they built the brick building after the wooden structure that had been built in 1870 would no longer serve, but there was an even earlier building before they built that one that had burnt to the ground.
It was built in the height of wartime, and raising the money to build it was a struggle in this small community, 10 miles outside any incorporated town. But they did, and over time they would add on some Sunday school rooms, and when I was a little fellow in the mid-1970s, a fellowship hall that was the scene of all the church potlucks I remember. There were beautiful chandeliers in the ceiling that had been salvaged from the old building, converted from candles to electricity, and three different pictures of Jesus on the walls, all portraying him in varying shades of white.
Across the street is a small cemetery. Dozens of people who loved me are in that cemetery, including Monty and Doc, and my Dad. I suspect I will end up there one day too, one way or another. Our fortunes seem intertwined, this church and me.
I learned about Jesus in this brick church, and I memorized the Apostle’s Creed there, which was printed on a piece of paper that had been pasted to the flyleaf of the hymnal. The words Holy Catholic Church had a line through the word Catholic, with the word “Universal” written over it. Brother Burton, our pastor, explained to me that Catholic meant universal, but we didn’t say Catholic, because we didn’t want to confuse anyone.
During Vacation Bible School I learned how to look up verses in the Bible, and did it so well I won a Bible with my name written in it as a prize. We ate butter cookies and Kool-Aid, made crafts with popsicle sticks, and learned the ancient stories about donkeys that talked and floods and stones that rolled away because of love.
When I went away to the Marines, my mailbox was packed with letters and cards from the people of that church. They prayed for me like it was real, and they sent me care packages of homemade cookies as I moved from base to base.
Like a lot of kids, I drifted around as I got older, and I hadn’t set foot in that sanctuary in years. I came home from the Marines for a week’s leave, and I stopped by when I saw Brother Burton working in the yard of the church. I stopped to talk to him.
I had a lot on my mind. I had fallen in love with Heather, a woman who had broken up with me when it turned out she was a lesbian. I had never met a lesbian before, but I had learned in this building right here that same-sex relationships were sinful. I knew we couldn’t be together, and I knew I loved her, and I was powerfully concerned she was going to hell, and if I kept hanging out with her, I was afraid I might be going to hell, too.
I figured I would ask Brother Burton what he thought. He and I sat in the yard of that old brick church for an hour or so, just chatting about first this thing and then that, about how things had changed since I had been gone. I was trying to work up my nerve to ask him about Heather, when he said, “Now, take that house right there”, and pointed at the house across the road, by the cemetery.
“Yes sir. That’s Mrs. X’s house”, calling the name of the lady who lived there my whole childhood.
“Not anymore. She died, and now it’s a rent house. For a while, two gay fellows and some kids lived there. I never thought I would see gay guys living together like a family in this place, but things change, I guess.”
I got real still.
“Did they ever come to church?” I asked.
“The kids came to Vacation Bible School that summer. But then one of the guys lost their job, and things got hard for them, and they had to move. They didn’t have any money for groceries or anything, so we took up a collection and bought them a bunch of groceries. You can’t let kids go hungry, just because you don’t agree with the parents.”
This was exactly the conversation I had wanted to have when I stopped the car, and I hadn’t even brought it up!
“But wait”, I said. “Isn’t that condoning sin?“
He looked off into the sky like perhaps the answer was written there. Then he looked me dead in the eye and said, “Maybe. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. Maybe I’ll pray on that for a while. But I do know that if you see somebody that needs help, and you can help them, then to not help them is definitely a sin.”
As I got in the car and drove off, I still didn’t have any answers. In the end, Heather and I would remain friends until the day she died 25 years later. Eventually, I learned that what I had learned about same-sex attraction was wrong and that there were many ways to be Christian beyond what I learned in that red brick building. But in the yard of that small brick building, I also learned, and have held onto, the idea that there were things you could not be sure about, and that was OK, but that didn’t ever absolve you from doing what you knew to be right.