Between 1978 and 1984, my father was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lonoke, Arkansas. It was his first post after Austin Theological Seminary, and our first time to be a preacher’s family. Upon arrival from Texas, my twin brother Paul and I were permitted to visit the city park down the block while my parents unpacked. It was a different time then, where a couple of four-year-olds could walk to a strange park by themselves and play on the merry-go-round. I’m not sure kids are even allowed on merry-go-rounds anymore; too many accidents.
We lived in a manse, which is a house for a minister’s families on the church grounds. First Pres was a stately, old church designed in the Tudor Revival style. It was founded in 1854 and this particular building was built in 1919.
When you live at a church, you develop a different kind of relationship with it than other folks. It’s more familiar. It becomes a part of your own home. We had free range of the grounds. There were two buildings, the fellowship hall and the sanctuary. These buildings were full of marvelous secrets which were the source of much curiosity and speculation.
The fellowship hall was a one story building joined by a breezeway to the sanctuary. In it were Sunday school rooms, a kitchen, a nursery, two halls, my father’s study, and the Coke room.
Every Sunday morning after Sunday school, we lined up outside of the kitchen to order up a bottle of soda, or as we called it, a Coke. My favorite Cokes were Sprite, Welch’s Grape, and oddly enough Tab. I drank Tab because my Aunt Nancy drank Tab, and she was very cool. One Sunday, I broke two, maybe three Tabs on the floor of my Sunday School room. No one said a word. They just cleaned it up and gave me another one.
I recall doing a little bit of exploring in the summer. I was looking around my dad’s study and discovered a door that I had not noticed before. With a little bit of trepidation, I opened it with it’s ancient door knob and was astonished at what I found. There was another room which I had never seen, and in it were about a thousand Cokes in nearly every variety. I concluded that this was where the Sunday school Cokes were coming from, and I now had full access to them. I pulled out a warm bottle of Sprite and thought about opening it, but there was something sacred about the bottle that I felt I should not disturb. I thought that maybe stealing something from a church was a high sin, and I suppose it is.
Once a month on Wednesday nights, we had what was called a Fellowship Supper. This was a thrilling event for me. My mother was a good cook, but there were certain foods that I only got at the Fellowship Supper. Fried chicken, lime whip, and buttery French bread to name just a few. I didn’t have to sit with my parents. I and the other church kids would eat in a Sunday school room and chatter away, daring each other to dip our cookies in the punch. But after dinner was when the real fun began. We would climb out of the window and gather on the lawn, and the tag game would begin.
We played two types of tag. Standard tag and Chinese tag. Chinese tag is where if your teammate is frozen, you have to dive between their legs to get them out. Our home base was a mysterious hump jutting out of the sanctuary building. We played well into the night, and we sweated hard.
The sanctuary itself, was altogether holy to me. I did not play in it although I did explore it often. It was years before I unraveled all of it’s secrets, and I’m not convinced that I discovered them all. I’ve had vivid dreams of secret rooms and ghostly presences.
On the outside of the building, there were open vents to the basement which were just big enough for a kid to crawl through. I did it once on a dare. The basement was deep enough that I could not climb back out. It was lit only by the light of day coming in through the vents. It was full of dusty, old junk and Christmas decorations. I was quite certain it was haunted. I found my way to the creaky, wooden stairs and let myself out into the foyer, very much relieved.
Stairs from the foyer led to a second story of classrooms. For much of my childhood, I was afraid of climbing up there. We liked to make up stories about tragic events that may have occurred there. When I did finally muster the courage to climb the stairs which took several turns, I discovered two classrooms, one of which may have had a trap door. In retrospect, it was probably just a section of the floor that had been repaired. That room was were kids were spanked, and we concocted a story that a teacher had opened the trap door on a kid and dropped him down to his death. Another scary aspect was that there were often bees. I was never stung, but there was something unsettling about their presence.
The sanctuary itself was a very sacred place in my child’s heart. And in the very front was a stained glass window of the shepherd Jesus, which was often the focus for me in worship. I would count all of the individual panes while my dad preached, and it contained a mystery.
After the service, the ushers would exit the sanctuary through the doors on either side of the chancel with the offering plates. For years, I did not know what they did with the money. I knew enough that the offering was to be given to God, and I liked to imagine what that might looked like. I envisioned the men of the church praying and raising up the plates to the heavens, and then the money would rise in a stream of light. I was disappointed to find that it helped pay my dad’s salary.
But one day while exploring the church alone, I discovered where they were going. Behind the window was a narrow passageway where if you looked up at the window, you could see an exact backwards replica of the window. I felt very privileged to know what was behind this. And if memory serves, there was a little room called a sacristy where my father dawned his robe and stole.
To this day, there are vivid memories of feelings and smells which I associate with this church. Sometimes I would peak into the baptismal font and smell the water. It was musty, and I believed it to be a kind of magical substance.
In the winter, when I was old enough, Paul and I were invited to be acolytes. We waited in the foyer as the prelude was played on the organ. Furnace heat rose from the floor vent toasty and warm; a respite from the frigid air that blew in through the front door as people entered. Gas furnace heat has a distinctive smell, especially when the first days of cold descend and the fire burns the dust from the previous winter. We had a forbidden ritual. We would light the candle and let it drop on the palms of our hands while the adults weren’t looking. We pretended it didn’t hurt, but it did. Then we would peel the cooled wax from our skin and pretend things about it, although I cannot remember what.
At Christmas, the youth group would climb ladders to decorate the enormous Chrismon tree. A Chrismon tree is decorated in white ancient Christian symbols. When I was big enough to do this, I felt proud. I felt that my horizons were broadening in some unnamed way. We all chattered joyfully as we decorated.
I learned how to sing hymns in this church listening to my mom. I imitated her adaptations. When the melody rose too high, she would drop the octave and so did I for several years. I recall a Mr. Holmes, an attorney married to a journalist for the Lonoke Democrat. I thought he must have been the best singer in the church. He had an easy tenor voice with something I’d never heard before: vibrato. I very much desired to sing with vibrato after hearing him, but it did not come for many years.
Sometimes I wish I was still a member of this little church. My family was well cared for by it. I suspect that they made my dad’s first years as a minister a little easier. It was my playground, my family, and my house of God. I visit it once and a while and look at the names dedicated on each stain glassed window, many of whom were ancestors of the very people with whom I worshiped; the people who made fried chicken and mac n’ cheese and who took me to the spanking room when I needed it.