A few weeks ago I attended a hymn festival at Centenary United Methodist Church, in Richmond, VA, the church where I grew up. It’s a large old downtown church, its sanctuary warm and inviting with a high arched wooden ceiling, wooden pews with hand-carved trefoils on each end, red carpets and cushions, and richly colored stained glass windows. My parents and grandparents were all active members of Centenary; each of them was buried from there. I was baptized as an infant in the white marble font that still stands in the front corner beneath a stained glass window of Jesus suffering the little children to come unto him. For a time in elementary school, I sang in the children’s choir. I still remember how the choir director held up pictures illustrating the words to “All Things Bright and Beautiful”—pictures of little flowers that open, little birds that sing, glowing colors, and tiny wings—to help us memorize the words. Most Sundays in my junior high and high school years, I sat with my brother and our parents in the rear balcony, from which spot my brother and I could point to some of the more extraordinary (to our eyes and minds) combinations of fruit, flowers, and feathers ladies wore on their hats. Sometimes we would get so tickled that our parents had to separate us.
Shortly after I was married there, I transferred my membership to another church, but my brother still worships at Centenary. It was he who invited me to the hymn festival, and we sat together again, though not in the balcony. Instead, we chose a pew in the main part of the sanctuary, just to the left of the center aisle about five rows back from the front. I wasn’t thinking of my grandparents when we sat down, but about halfway through the program, I realized we had landed pretty much where they used to sit. Now my brother and I are the grandparents! At any rate, I thought about them, my grandmother and grandfather, both long gone. I thought about Ed Johnson, the sexton, and his wife Emma who ran the kitchen, and their wonderful smiles; about Ed Scott, a perennial usher and greeter who always had a pocket full of butterscotch candies to press into our hands as we left church; about Stuart and Ida Gray Pearce, the MYF sponsors who fed us pimiento cheese sandwiches every Sunday night and took us Christmas caroling in December; about the Rev. Dr. Purnell Bailey who taught my confirmation class and let us climb the narrow stairs into the church tower to see the bells that hang there, the largest weighing 4000 pounds. These good folks are all long gone. I also thought about old Mrs. Goode, the 4th grade Sunday school teacher who scolded me for wanting to plant a flower garden on a Sunday afternoon. She said doing so would violate the commandment about keeping the Sabbath. She too has departed this world. And I thought about a girl my age, Margie Fairchild, toward whom I long harbored resentment because she, not I, was chosen to play Mary in the Christmas pageant, and gosh darn it all, she didn’t even attend Sunday school regularly and I was there with my family every week. I wonder where Margie is today.
The month of November, with All Saints Day at its beginning and Thanksgiving Day at its end, seems a fitting time to reflect on spiritual roots. None of those I knew at Centenary was a saint in the strictest definition. However, each could find a place on the rolls of those who tried to be faithful to the God of their understanding. I am grateful to all of them, even Mrs. Goode and Margie Fairchild, for being there at the outset of my spiritual journey. Admittedly, none of my memories seem particularly holy or theologically profound. Then again, it’s been more than fifty years since I “grew up” at Centenary, and in these last five decades I have both forgotten much and learned much. Meanwhile, the fact that I have wanted to keep growing spiritually—that is, to keep growing in a relationship with God—suggests that the years at Centenary effectively launched me on to a path that remains life-giving and fruitful. For that, and for the warmth of the memories that stay with me, I give thanks.
I am lucky, I know. Many of my friends do not have happy memories of the churches in which they “grew up.” Many have had to unlearn much of what they were taught. They have had to seek safer places in which to grow spiritually. Some have had to find “saints”—and opportunities for healing—in places other than churches.
What about you? Where do you locate your own spiritual roots? What, if anything, have you had to unlearn? What are you doing now to continue “growing up” in your understanding of God? Who are the saints on your journey for whom you give thanks?