For an unremarkable Tuesday morning, too many cars populated the aging parking lot, weeds abundant in the cracks in the asphalt. In the lobby of the church, a woman sat with a clipboard balanced on her walker taking the names of those who entered through the front door. Next to her was the first indication that something was a little off. Still the middle of September, boxes of Christmas decorations, including strings of lights and a random collection of extension cords, sat on the floor in the open area. In the church office, another white-haired woman sat behind a desk. Next to the door was a hand-written sign written with a felt-tipped marker. “Donations.” The short hallway leading to the sanctuary was littered with rolls of colored paper, a portable steamer, and a few boxes with unidentified contents. A variety of textiles — banners, altar paraments, vestments — draped the sanctuary pews. On a shelf behind the altar and on the communion railing were rows and rows of glass vessels of all shapes and sizes. Scattered around the altar were candles and candelabras and a potpourri of gadgets used for the church’s worship.
The congregation is closing at the end of this month. What lay around the building was a collection of physical stuff that had accumulated over the years that this proud congregation had been serving its neighborhood.
So, this is what it looks like when a congregation closes. Or at least what it looks like when one congregation closes, one of the over 4000 that close in the US every year.
I had traveled to the south suburbs of Chicago to see if there were things that could be put to use in my congregation. It didn’t feel good to be there. It felt a little like picking through the clothing of someone who had just died. While there, I was dealing with my own feelings about the closing of a congregation. What had happened? What was the tipping point? What does this say about the church? Is this where we all are headed?
Later on in the day, I started thinking about those women. What must it have been like to see things that had meant so much to you carted off and loaded in the backs of cars you had never seen before, taken by people who were strangers and who were taking them to undisclosed locations? What did it feel like to see banners that had been visual reminders of faith and that once hung in your sanctuary, folded up and carted off? What was going through their minds when someone carried out in a cardboard box eucharistic vessels from which they had received the sacrament hundreds of times. To those of us picking through the spoils they were just things that we hoped might find a use; to those who were watching, it must have felt like a part of their lives were being carried away. Maybe it was a little like the women who sat in a different garden in a different time and place.
I was chatting with another pastor, sharing with him my discomfort at picking through the piles. He shared the same discomfort and then added, “It’s a positive that this congregation has decided to become a legacy congregation.” I suppose in a sense that’s true. Their stuff will live on in another ministry. It’s at least a way to put a positive spin on it. When they sell the building, the proceeds will likely go to a judicatory fund that is supporting new initiatives. On some level that is all good.
But I’m leery of jumping to the positives too quickly. To jump too quickly to the saccharine platitudes covers over the reality that something is dying. It’s not something anyone has to feel guilty about. It may not even be something that anyone has to take responsibility for. Yet it’s real. There is loss. There is sadness. There is grief. I can imagine that it must hurt. To acknowledge that is important. To lament is a holy thing.
Something will rise from the ashes; that’s God’s way. Accompanied in the wilderness by a God of resurrection and life, that’s our hope. Hope is made more real when we can acknowledge that we don’t need to explain away or cover over the grief and sadness.
To you, members of Prince of Peace Church, I don’t know with any precision what you are feeling in the midst of all this. But I acknowledge my own sadness and that I could feel something of your grief in my bones. And for the moment, I sit with you at the waters of Babylon.