Perhaps I was so surprised because I didn’t know I was in the general vicinity until I was right up on it. As soon as I saw the large rock wall, I had a deja vu feeling of the first church I attended as a child. A few feet more and I realized that it was, indeed, Grace Church of the Nazarene.
The scene before me, however, did not match my memories. I drove further past the property then turned around and pulled into the parking lot. I sat there, taking it all in. An empty parking lot, except me and a homeless man in a baseball hat that undoubtedly didn’t know I was nearby. Or more accurately, simply didn’t care.
The big stone-built reception hall was almost entirely gone. It looked like the carcass of an animal, long ago devoured and left for vultures to scavenge. The memories rushed in without permission or forewarning.
I remember a particular time when the congregation gathered in the large reception hall for church, sitting in folding chairs…although the reason we were there instead of the church building across the parking lot, I cannot remember. I was sitting to the right of my father – I might have been in first or second grade at most. As the choir director was leading us in song, my father’s large index finger was showing me how to read the mystical verse-then-chorus-then-back-up-to-verse-again rhythm of hymnal reading.
I remember the potlucks or afterglows or all-church socials…whatever hip title they had at the time for group dinners…where glorious food of all kinds were laid out on table after table as women busied themselves to keep the tables filled with sides and casseroles and always, always, there was cake. Delicious cake. The reception hall was equated with joyous celebrations in my mind’s memory.
I most vividly remember the incident with my younger sister and a kind, older gentlemen of the church: dear Bill Hawk. He was faithful to the service of the church, often serving as the greeting usher. At one particular after-church social in the large stone reception hall, Bill greeted and chatted happily with the parishioners of the church – children playing and running free as the background soundtrack to the event. My sister, probably around 3 years old, was leaning too near the grand, heavy doors that welcomed everyone inside. Her small fingers slipped inside the door jam just as Bill (who was standing outside) shut the door after wishing an exiting family a good week. Not able to get the door to close properly, he pushed harder, not hearing the screaming cries of a young girl whose fingers were literally flattening under his pressure. For the rest of his life he apologized and agonized over that event, Bill being the last person on earth to ever hurt a child.
As I looked around the parking lot and church grounds where I freely played as a small child – under the careful, peripheral-vision of my parents – I remember being a bit enamored with the ‘bad boy’ of the church, Eric. He was older than me and seemed to have complete control of anything he wanted. I should have known then that my propensity toward bad boys would be an ongoing draw.
I remember Phil Troutman, a teenager when I was in primary school, who always sat with his hands clasped behind his neck and blocked a large portion of our view of the pulpit where we sat, just a few pews behind. I remember the older Schnetzer kids, dressed like the 60’s teenagers they were, standing with the rest of the teen group, hands raised as they sang We Are One in The Bond of Love, swaying in unison – a scene that could just as easily have been a part of a Haight-Ashbury love fest as it was playing out in the first few rows of a conservative church from the Wesleyan tradition.
I always have a strange feeling of doom or if not doom, an aura of mystery when I remember the multi-colored cast that fell over the sanctuary during the evening service as the sun shown through the deeply colored diamond-shaped windows along the side of the building. I’m sure some beautification committee felt they were wonderfully mid-century and would add a festive hue to our worship. But for a small child, it always brought up unexplained scary feelings for me.
This was the church that celebrated my parents as they came back to Kansas City as a young newlywed couple. Grace Church threw them a wedding shower and a few years later, a baby shower to welcome me into the fold. Within a few days of being born, I was being proudly shown off during church services and soon after, dedicated to the Lord. This was where I began my faith journey and here I was 50+ years later looking at the skeletal ruins of what was once so vibrant and bustling with life.
It was a sad scene to absorb on an early weekday morning. I was simply driving around, looking at the neighborhoods that branched out from our new home. To unexpectedly see this childhood memory was surprising and a bit overwhelming. In my mind’s eye I could see the people that once inhabited this thriving church. I could smell the smells and hear the loud conversations and intoxicating singing.
And just as quickly as the rock wall rose up in my path and the feelings of dread washed over me, a new thought entered my mind: Grace still stands. The homeless man shifted his weight a little as he leaned against one of the remaining walls of the hall and I turned to see a sign: Kayros Iglesia Del Nazareno. This was still being used as a church. A gathering spot. A community of believers. Grace still stands! The colored windows were gone, one window missing a pane altogether. The reception hall was completely unusable. But the purpose of the church building was still very much intact.
It didn’t take me long to imagine the lives of those that have passed through this church. A glance back at my own fifty years shows definite signs of wear and some scars too deep to be reused. My world has included immense happiness that includes two amazing children. It has included love and horror and tears. There have been good years and there have been sad moments. And yet, grace still stands. The Father that protected my sister’s hands from permanent damage is the same Protector who led hand-clasped-behind-his-neck, Phil Troutman into a lifetime of missions work in Mozambique. My father attended this church at a young age with his family and at the age of 18 he stepped in as the church organist. My entire life my father has been our church organist (at 3 other churches) and it wasn’t until a few years ago at 78 years old that he gave up that title. Grace still stands.
Many of our childhood memories can be pulled out, polished up and seem to be in pristine condition. We compare our messy now to the spit-shined then and wonder what happened. What went wrong. But if we take a closer look we can see the divine thread of protection and redirection and compassion that God has weaved through our story. The times when we deserved harsh retribution but instead found inexplicable love. The moments when we look back and shake our heads, wondering how it is that we are still alive to tell the harrowing story. Those moments, my friends, are moments of grace. Undeserved merit. Times when God has undoubtedly wanted to wring our necks but instead decided, ‘I love them too much to let this lesson end here. I’ll let them work through this on their own while watching, in peripheral fashion, to make sure they don’t get too far.’
Grace still stands.
Rubble and debris and broken windows cannot stop its permeable warmth. Outer conditions do not dictate the grace that resides within.
Don’t get too discouraged when looking at the broken parts of your life. Think, instead, of the times you have risen when you thought it impossible to walk. Think of the dark times when you cried in shame but found undeserved mercy at the end of the night. Grace still stands. Free and accessible and unending.
Grace still stands.