When I was in elementary school, a friend and I spent a lot of Sundays after the service wandering the quiet upper floors of our church, poking around in odd corners, wanting to know every inch of the building. Our explorations always ended in the north wing, where a fourth flight of stairs led to a small landing with a door, its latch padlocked shut. We’d sit on the landing and peer through a hole in the door, guessing what lay up the half flight of stairs we could see. We knew the church didn’t have a bell but when we stood on the sidewalk outside, we could see it was some sort of tower.
During my years away at Calvin, church drama dwindled our congregation, and while many faithful attendees remain, it’s not the body it used to be. There’s that hymn about the church not being a building, nor a steeple, nor a resting place, but the people, but when I see the sparsely populated pews, it is the permanence of the building that comforts me: the dark wood, the vaulted ceiling, the red and blue rose window and the subtle pastels of Tiffany stained glass, the creaky cabinets in the kitchen, the musty smell of the basement, and the occasional clang of a radiator.
Though these things give me a sense of continuity, this doesn’t change the fact that the church as people is adaptable, but our church as building may have outlived its usefulness. It was built to offer classrooms and nurseries and meeting places to a congregation of over 300 people, numbers we haven’t been at in decades. I worry about what will happen to this building because the loss of it would scatter this people.
For the first time in years, I went up to that locked door this past Sunday. As I approached the landing, I heard the voices of two middle school girls coming down the stairs. I hid until they had passed out of earshot, then ducked out to find the padlock still locked but that someone, presumably them, had unscrewed the latch from the doorframe. The door stood slightly ajar. I entered.
The room was smaller than I expected, square with leaded glass windows and peeling paint, a water-stained chartreuse couch and scattered chairs. A print of a bird and jar with some glass beads looked like recent additions by the two friends. To find myself in a place I had wondered about for so long felt anticlimactic and eerie and unexpectedly heartening all at once.
After a few moments in that uppermost room, I slipped back out and shut the door. Two flights down, I came across one of the girls heading back up with a jar filled to the brim with water. We stared at each other cautiously. I think we were both wondering if the other knew we had been in the room.
I smiled, happy that because of her I had.