Michiana Chronicles: Homecoming
It’s a rainy Sunday in November, and I’ve returned to my family’s home church here in Elkhart for its 150th Anniversary service. I’m supposed to say a few words, but mostly I just want to sit and take it all in. What a celebration.
On auto-pilot, I take my place in the only place I would think to sit - the same gently-curved wooden bench I have always sat in. On the left, near the front, close to the piano. It’s been that way for literally half a century. As a child, visiting from England, this was the family spot – my legs swinging in the air, not yet able to touch the ground. As a teenager, after family reunions where I slept in strange rooms with distant cousins, then scrambled on my Sunday best to represent for the English side of the clan – the same bench. Spin forward two decades and I am a greenhorn pastor in this same church, sitting in the same bench, feeling the flop sweat run down my arms as I prepare to preach my first sermons. And most recently, again the same bench, older, greyer, and straitened with grief beside my mother at my father’s passing. Same bench, same space, so many stages of a life.
As always, I look down at the floor. This sanctuary has the most beautiful dark hardwood floor. Long, narrow slats running at diagonals under the benches. There’s a different grain in each piece of wood. Some radiating like ripples on a pond, one piece I love has long waves like an ocean or the middle of a Jell-O salad, many pieces with tightly pressed lines. Across all of them the scuff marks of decades of Sunday leather shoes, the tips of walking sticks, even what looks like a splash of blood, although it could as easily be grape juice.
Not that long ago, people in this congregation would still kneel on this floor to pray. Men and women would turn around to face their benches, resting their elbows on the hard wooden seat with hands clasped as they confessed their deepest hearts to God. Nowadays, the benches are padded, and people rarely kneel in that fashion. But even I have seen it done
Up front, the musicians are leading songs in both Spanish and English. I am reminded of how well this meeting room “sings” – over thirty years ago, at the point the church was remodeled, a couple of the song leaders fought tooth and nail against carpeting the floor. They didn’t want to deaden the sound of the room. Thus the floorboards I keep returning to – and thus the bloom in the a cappella hymns reverberating from so many hard surfaces.
Presently, the music gives way to spoken words. The service takes place in a rapid back and forth of English and Spanish. One of the pastors delivers greetings in both languages. At other points, one speaks in English, the other in Spanish. The Mayor of Elkhart is present, and delivers heartfelt greetings. Other dignitaries speak as well. Again, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish.
It feels strange to experience this new babel of language from my familiar spot on the left, near the front, close to the piano. The floor still speaks to me, but its echoes are new. This place is changing – it’s embracing its neighbors, all of them, as its neighborhood changes. As I hug old friends in the hallway, I realize how proud I am of this place, and of its people, even as I don’t always recognize it like I used to.
The next day, I write to another former member of the church describing the day. It was so hopeful to be there, I write. The church is very different than it was, yet exactly the same.
And isn’t that what we all want for the places we love the most? For them to thrive and grow, joined with all those that have gone before and those that are still to come. Each piece in its place like the most beautiful hardwood floor, beneath a plain wooden bench, on the left, near the front, close to the piano.
Music at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart