The white, wood sided country church where I attended services as a child had a towering steeple over its bell tower. Nestled in a tree lined valley, a tumbling brook flanked one side, a dusty gravel road lined with goldenrod lines nodding sleepily to passers-by flanked the other. The only stained glass were the colorful rectangles bordering the larger central pane of the sharply arched windows. A brown-toned print of a wise, reflective Jesus hung on the wall behind the pulpit.
Heavy wire held up a thick, dark green cloth curtain which had to be walked across the stage before the annual Christmas play. Baby Jesus was a doll wrapped in flannel and tucked into a manger made by turning the platform’s one step upside-down and stuffing it with hay. Baptisms of the new converts had to wait until the local stream bed warmed each summer.
The village organized a volunteer fire department and asked that the bell inside the steeple – meant to call the faithful together to worship the God of Heaven – only ring to call the volunteers together to quench a village fire. Once the fire department could afford an official fire siren, the church bell again rang out at the beginning of services. One time I stood beneath the bell, shivering with cold and hushed anticipation, waiting for the stroke of midnight to pull the rope and ring in the New Year.
An old upright piano – and whoever could read the music in the green hymnals – accompanied the congregational song service. And sing we did: “The Old Rugged Cross”, “At Calvary” and a couple of verses of “Jesus Loves Me”. It was a staunchly independent, non-liturgical Protestant church with a Sunday morning tradition of ending the morning prayer with a group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the singing of the Doxology as the ushers came forward with the morning’s collection.
The Sunday School room was lined with pictures of our Bible stories and lessons. Every summer Mennonite teenagers from another state came to teach the two week Daily Vacation Bible School. We sang a cappella all week, played “London Bridge is Falling Down” during recess and colored and cut out little, paper figures for our only craft: an elaborate, detailed diorama of the crossing the Red Sea.
The church folks sent us to a non-denominational Bible camp where the curriculum included flannel graph Bible stories, a daily talk from a real missionary and memorization of the Apostle’s creed and Bible verses. The afternoons were filled with crafts, games, swimming and team competitions. The evening service was followed by a thoughtful, quiet walk back to the cabin for group devotions, discussion and prayer. We always came home excited and eager to serve God in bigger and better ways.
The last time I saw the church it had shrunk. It was fringed with weeds and missing its mountain of concrete stairs. The faithful and their children had passed on or left to worship and serve in newer buildings with more exciting services. The door of the building was locked, but the message once taught within its walls continues to spread through the lives of those who now serve as missionaries, pastors and Sunday School teachers around the country.