Thursday, February 15, 2018

When I Go to Church

    One of our greatest joys in traveling around is when we are able to visit a local church congregation on Sundays.  The various congregations have the same beliefs and yet each congregation seems to have its own memorable differences. 
   According to local folks, I apparently spent most of my life in what they call ‘the mission field”.  I don’t understand this term since I have definitely seen missionaries here as well.  Maybe they just mean ‘far from here.’
   In addition to my home congregation growing up, which I have already written about, we frequently attended other Indiana groups as well whenever my father had to travel to them to speak.  Things in the outlying towns were definitely smaller and a bit more primitive.  In Martinsville, Indiana, where there was no local church building the local members met on Sunday mornings in the annex of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, because, after all, they didn’t use it on Sundays anyway.
    In Kokomo, Indiana, we met in a 2nd floor room owned by the Red Man’s Lodge which had no air-conditioning.  In the hot, humid Indiana summers that could be a problem!  It was just an empty hall which could be rented with wooden folding chairs.  A piano was also in the room but was not used unless we came  Then someone would meet Mom at the door to ask if she would mind playing.  For this purpose Mom kept a scrap of paper in her purse with numbers of the three hymns she knew how to play and that is what we sang.  The first floor was a pool parlor, so everything said and done in our meetings was to the clicking sound of pool balls hitting one another.  One day it was very hot.  That was apparently a problem for those wooden folding chairs.  It was about 110F and humid in that room which was enough to make the varnish on the chairs a little tacky which was entertaining when everyone tried to stand at the end of the meeting, only to find a wooden chair somewhat glued to their backs.
    One little branch met in a similar 2nd floor room, but instead of a pool parlor downstairs, it was the town’s volunteer fire department.  It was always exciting when the fire siren when off during a meeting.  There was no continuing when that happened.  We just had to stop whatever we were doing until the siren stopped sounding.
   As children we sometimes didn’t have any idea where we might wake up on Sunday morning.  Dad often had to travel to other areas for speaking assignments.  His areas could cover anywhere in central Indiana, parts of western Ohio and sometimes a town or two in eastern Illinois.  Mom would pack up our Sunday clothes and some breakfast food the night before and make up a big bed area in the back of our station wagon.  Sometimes we had to leave as early as 2 AM to arrive on time wherever we were going that day, so they’d just carry us kids to the car in our pajamas and tuck us in.  (Seatbelts were unknown in cars then.)  When it got light, Mom would feed us breakfast while Dad drove.  On arriving at our destination, she’d get us dressed and ready for church.  After the morning meetings we were often invited to eat dinner with one of the local families before returning for another meeting in the afternoon.  By early evening we would be headed home again.  After sandwiches, it would soon be dark, so Mom would tuck us in to bed again.  In the middle of the night we’d arrive back home and be carried into the house and put into our beds.  I never thought of it then, but now as an adult I wonder about my parents on these trips. They had to be leaving home about 2 AM and sometimes returning home 24 hours later at 2 AM again. Staying up and alert for 24 hours had to be hard on them….not to mention the fact that after returning home at 2 AM, Dad had to get up to go to work at 5 AM.  What dedication!
   When I lived in Germany I was not near any military bases, so I always attended one of the local congregations.  The first was in Krefeld in the Rhineland.  The family I lived with went to a different church, but were happy to drop me off for church on their way.  The father would take the children off to church while the mother stayed home to prepare their Sunday meal.  They dropped me off in front of a multistory apartment building downtown.  Only a small metal plaque near the door identified it as a church.  To get to church, I had to ring the bell.  Then whoever had gotten to church first, would release the lock from the church on the third floor for each person who entered.  That meant one church calling was listening for that bell and letting people into the building for church.  The meetings were actually held in a 3rd floor walkup apartment.  The main meeting was held in the living room area.  Then the various groups separated out to meet in the kitchen or bedrooms.  Probably 20 or 30 people attended.
   When I lived in Kiel, there was an actual church building, which was nice.  Conference Sunday was the only time church was in English if we wanted.  Most of the congregation preferred the German translation.  We were only able to hear one session of conference via some sort of radio setup.  The missionaries would listen carefully to see who was speaking, then sort through a stack of slides to find the picture of the speaker, and then project that picture onto the wall.  A rather scary Sunday was the one when another American friend and I were invited to speak… German.  It took me some time to craft my speech.  Then I had my German roommate go through it to correct it for grammar.  As a side note, I listened once to a speaker try to explain the difference between faith and belief.  It is a fine difference in English, but quite excruciating in German, since in German, faith and belief are the same word:  Glaube(n).
    One Sunday a group of Americans were visiting Copenhagen, Denmark.  We were all decent German speakers and one fellow also spoke Norwegian, but no one spoke Danish.  There was also another visitor who only spoke English and another who could do Danish and Norwegian but no English or German.  We all ended up on the back row and eventually arranged ourselves according to translation needs.  The Danish/Norwegian speaker interpreted to the Norwegian/German speaker who then interpreted to the German/English speakers who then interpreted for the English speaker.  What an adventure that was!
   After I was married we moved to Alaska.  As long as we stayed in the more populated areas, things were fairly normal.  There were a few quirks though.  I remember the puzzlement on the faces of the Primary children as they sang the song

“Oh What Do You Do In the Summertime”

Oh, what do you do in the summertime, when all the world is green?
Do you fish in a stream, or lazily dream on the banks as the clouds go by?
Is that what you do? So do I!

Oh, what do you do in the summertime, when all the world is green?
Do you swim in a pool, to keep yourself cool, or swing in a tree up high?
Is that what you do? So do I!

Oh, what do you do in the summertime, when all the world is green?
Do you march in parades, or drink lemonades, or count all the stars in the sky?
Is that what you do? So do I!

Verse one worked fine.  Alaskan kids certainly do fish in the summer.  At verse two things started to fall apart.  Keeping cool was not a problem.  In our town there was no pool at the time, so the kids had to learn to swim in a lake.  The lake was so cold that a bonfire was kept burning on the shore for the kids to warm up a bit.  Then came verse three where it got to counting all the stars in the sky.  With the long hours of summer daylight, stars were just not seen in the summertime!
   One Sunday I was asked to speak in another congregation which was about three hours away, so we got up bright and early and headed out to Glennallen, Alaska.  It was a small congregation, so they were happy to have outsiders come to speak once a month.  The other person on the program was coming from the town of Valdez in the other direction.  He never arrived at all since the pass between Valdez and Glennallen was closed due to weather, so one of the locals asked me what our topic was to have been then quickly prepared some remarks on the same subject.  When it was time to sing, the pianist hadn’t arrived, so I ended up doing that as well.  Since they knew there would be visitors that one Sunday a month, the whole congregation would meet after services for a potluck before they sent the visitors on their way.
   One Sunday we were on a family camping trip so decided to attend the nearest little church congregation.  We had directions to the place and a time, so off we went.  We were pulling our trailer which made getting ready a bit easier.  Once we were ready, we all hopped into our vehicle and took off.  Our directions soon took us off the paved highway and down a dusty, unpaved side road to Petersville, Alaska, an hour or so away.  Eventually we arrived, only to find that someone had forgotten to shut the screen window in the trailer, which meant the trailer was now full of dust!   Our directions led us to a small log building that was perhaps some sort of roadhouse.  The area is a winter playground, but we were there in summer, so things were pretty slow.  When we knocked on the door, we were greeted by a couple who ran the business.  They agreed that church was indeed held there and seemed happy to have us.  It seems that there were really only two families that belonged to this little congregation, and the other family was sick that day, so with our family of seven, and the Fishbacks, there were 9 of us there that day.   Since the Bible says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  I guess we were okay. Once again we became the featured speakers.  The kids all liked the part where refreshments were served after meeting.
   The church building in Chugiak, Alaska, was interesting.  It had been built on to….several times.  I think it was originally an old railroad building, now repurposed as a church.  Whenever they added on, the level was not quite the same.  They never added on to the sides, but just made the building longer and longer, like a long, wide hallway with many levels.  It was very important to watch your feet to avoid tripping!
   In Willow, Alaska, they met for a time in the old community hall.  We visited there a few times to help with a children’s program.  The most noteworthy thing about that building was the restroom.  Remember, this was Alaska, complete with winter snow and freezing temperatures.  If you needed to go to the restroom during your time at church, you really wanted to think carefully how necessary that trip was, because to get there you had to go get your coat, boots, hat and mittens on before going outside to access the bathroom, which was not particularly well heated.  Later they built a beautiful log church there which apparently was the talk of some of the locals.  One man assured Roger that there was an Olympic size swimming pool in there…and he knew it because he helped build it!  Having been in the building a number of times, I am pretty sure he was trying to describe the baptismal font, which was nowhere near the size of a swimming pool of any kind.
   In our travels between Alaska and the Lower 48, we have visited churches in several Canadian towns as well….Whitehorse, Edmonton, Calgary and an interesting meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Saturday night we looked for where we might attend church in Winnipeg and found a couple of locations.  We set out in the morning to find one and noticed we were no longer on the outskirts of town.  We soon arrived at a lovely building and went in.  There were several notable events there.  The congregation had recently been divided into two congregations.  The one we were meeting in was abnormally diverse I think.  When I went to the women’s group, I found six languages represented there, so the women were busy translating back and forth so everyone would understand the message being given.  Since the leader seemed a bit frazzled in dealing with the music, I asked if she needed help.  She answered, ‘only if you can play the piano.’  Done.  I was the piano player for the group that day!  Our daughter also had an interesting experience, because it was Canada Day.  In the youth group she attended she got to learn the Canadian National Anthem that day.  One of our experiences there was not religious but certainly opened our eyes regarding the efficacy of the Canadian health care system.  One of the men came in excited to announce he would soon be having surgery.  When we asked about it, he said he’d started having severe heart problems about six months previously.  After medical testing it was confirmed that he needed bypass surgery.  A person needing bypass surgery in the US is pretty much set up for surgery within a week or less.  They are rarely allowed to leave hospital care until they have had the life-saving surgery.  This man, with the Canadian health care system, was told his surgery would be free, but they would schedule his surgery and let him know when they could do it.  Now, six months later, they had finally called back to let him know he was scheduled for surgery in just six more weeks!  I guess Canadian health care is free, but sometimes you get what you pay for!
   It is not uncommon when visiting another area, to find connections with local people.  At the time our daughter, Kristin, lived in Logan, Utah.  Our son, Blaine,  lived in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  We visited Kristin’s congregation a number of times and were acquainted with some of the members there.  One time when we were visiting our son in Massachusetts, we met some of our daughter’s friends from Logan, who happened to be visiting the same congregation we were also visiting in Massachusetts.
   It was dark on a Saturday night when we arrived in Marianna, Florida.  It is not a huge town and the church building was a bit off the beaten path, but we found it.  When we walked in we were asked how on earth we found them.  I told them we
looked them up on the internet.  One lady immediately said, “Well you must have googled for the friendliest people!”  The soft southern drawl was fun to listen to and let me tell you, that was a congregation that could sing!  They could easily put many larger congregations to shame!  Later, on learning where we lived, a sweet lady told us to be on the lookout for her grandson who was serving as a missionary in nearby Preston, Idaho.
   A week later we attended church in Sherman, Texas.  It was a missionary farewell for a young woman in the congregation, leaving to spend 18 months serving her Heavenly Father.  Where was she to be assigned?  Logan, Utah, of course.
   Like many congregations, the one we attended in West Virginia seemed almost as if there were assigned seats.  We knew right where to look for everyone on a Sunday morning.  This was a group that could compete with the one in Marianna, Florida, for being friendly. When we went back to visit 8 years after we left there, it was as though we’d never been away.
   Mostly we found that church is not a building.  Though we may have different cultural practices, in the end it is a group of people believing together and helping one another in their quest to live according to God’s plan. 

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