Recently I learned that the church I attended as a child is holding its last service in September. Emmaus Lutheran Church, on Jefferson Avenue. I say the “church I attended” with a certain degree of disingenuousness. I attended because I had to. I went to the grade school affiliated with it and every Wednesday morning all the students were ushered into the church to hear services. There were three pastors I recall. The first was a Reverend Wilson. I didn’t know much about him because he wasn’t there very long after I started at the school. I recall a slim man with salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile. He could have been 40 or 50, but I seem to remember a wife that looked on the young side, so he might have been prematurely gray. He left and duties were shared between the considerably older (and semi-retired) Pastor Summers and the school principle, Mr. Oberman. They didn’t get a permanent replacement for Wilson till after I had left.
I rarely went on Sundays. The only time I did so regularly was during a short time when I had a girlfriend, a classmate, and I went with her. In hindsight, obviously I wasn’t going to be edified.
I remember being fervent in my faith at the time. (For a brief period, I even testified to strangers, on the street.) I know, that may sound like a contradiction, but even then I did not equate faith with regular attendance.
Well after leaving Emmaus I did a personal assessment of the things I took from there. It should be born in mind that my feelings about the place are mixed thoroughly with my memories of going to school there and the times I went through, so it is difficult to tease apart the church bits from the rest. It may be pointless to do so in any case. Halfway through high school I understood that the only thing I wanted from that time and that place was distance. Judge me if you wish, but all I got from Emmaus Lutheran School and Church was a deep sense of self-loathing and confusion and a bitter resentment over how much time and energy was and would be required to get all that protestant hellfire and guilt out of my brain.
My sense of personal shame was as much a result of my peers showing me time and again how little they thought of me as it was the thunderous Old Testament retributive doctrines, but since we were all being handed the same things it may be that the whole experience is the point. What I learned there was a pervasive intolerance.
I had one brief interaction with them years after leaving, which resulted in my threatening a lawsuit for harassment. That did the trick and I never heard anything from them again. That was desired and appreciated.
The school closed first, of course. I believe the building was sold. Something is going on in it anyway and it is not parochial school classes. (I think.) I was surprised to learn last week that the church had still been in business. Like old actors you haven’t seen anything about in years and think are dead, I was surprised to hear that services were still being held. Despite the tenacity of the congregation, I am not surprised they are shutting it down. Demographics. People move, die, neighborhoods change. The demographics mutate and unless an institution is willing to change with them, they do not survive. My memory suggests that this was not a parish interested in modernizing. Maybe they tried.
But it is also a fact that traditional churches of almost any denomination are struggling. This is neither new or uncommon. That Emmaus had lasted this long is a testament to persistence.
Some may feel they failed in their mission. No, probably not. They simply failed to adapt their mission to new conditions and needs. That particular manifestation of the Lutheran Church just faded out.
Plus, no doubt, they ran out of money.
I would never have known anything about this had I not been added (without permission, as often happens) to a Facebook group of fellow classmates. I hadn’t heard a peep out of them for however long I’d been a member until this shattering news came across Messenger. Good heavens, now that it’s too late, they’re all shocked. Maybe. I could have happily gone on knowing nothing about it. But I lurked on the thread for a few days, watching the comments, and then quietly left the group without saying a word. Why say anything? I don’t care but there’s no reason to rain on their party on that account. I didn’t want to be the curmudgeon who tells the truth about Uncle Phil at the funeral, so to speak.
But I do have one friend from those days who made a point of contacting me about it. Even though we had talked about my experiences and feelings about the place for literally decades, he was offended by my indifference. Not, I think, over the religious aspect, but over the nostalgia. Be that as it may, I was once again made to feel a smidgeon of guilt over my lack of interest, and here it is going on half a century since I left that place and the caul of it still clings. Amazing.
I know other Christians who came up through their churches in wholly different conditions and look at me oddly about this, but I came away from Emmaus with a burden of guilt based on the whole “you are a worthless smear of shite on the heel of god and steeped in sin for which there is no cure and unless you beg, beg beg forgiveness the fiery pit of perdition awaits” school of religious behavioral conditioning. I was furious with them for years. Life is hard enough without being made to feel that way by people supposedly preaching love.
I also came out of it with a more subtle but in some ways worse set of cultural biases that reinforced a White Christian West is the Best attitude that relegated anyone who didn’t accept that view to a lesser status, the status of the benighted who require “saving.” This is, bluntly, imperialist, racist in many cases, certainly a view soaked in the kind of privilege that, to take one example of many, saw the decimation of native American cultures.
And for a short while it acted as a set of filters through which alternate views had a hellish time getting through.
All these things clogged my brain like taffy and it took a long time to flense the pathways. They may not be entirely cleaned out to this day. The only part of that period of education for which I am grateful, at least as it concerns my intellectual development, was the opportunity it afforded my father and I to engage in intense quasi-Socratic dinner table dialogues that eventually spanned far more than just what I was taught in Bible studies that day. (I did take some measure of delight in asking uncomfortable and mostly unanswered questions in class.)
My subsequent studies in religion and theology left me even less enamored of Lutheranism, but this is nothing special. I have little use for any organized, institutionalized religion. They are all of them built by men for the purposes of men and to pursue those purposes they need money and money displaces the mission in time. (I choose my adjectives purposefully.)
Emmaus served one purpose for me—it catapulted me out of the narrow chute of parochial thinking. It was not the result they would have approved.
I was already reading science fiction then. My 5th grade teacher, a rangy man with flame red hair, told me it was a waste of time. When I asked why, he informed me that all those space stories were worse than fabrications, because there was nothing else Out There. No aliens, no other civilizations, nothing. All that Up There had been made by his god for our edification. It was just there for us to look at and admire.
Emmaus showed me the door out. On the other side was a future. Several futures. One of them was mine. I look back as seldom as I can.
Just in case anyone is interested.