Amen

September 26, 2009 | 23 comments


They whispered the last Amen, packed up the Bibles and stuck a For-Sale sign in the front lawn.

You can’t come in here anymore without the real-estate broker, so I dialed him to see if he’d let me in. He seemed to understand what I understood: Even without hymnals and communion bread and people in the pews, this place was still holy.

He turned the key, and we slipped in through the back.

“I’ll let you have your time here,” the broker, Craig Bruggeman, told me. And he left.

We were alone — this Old Girl and I.
I climbed onto her lap and breathed in her musty perfume. She’s still a beauty – even in death.

I ran fingertips along her pews dressed in green velvet, knelt at her sturdy communion rail, gazed through her stained-glass eyes. I’d never worshipped here before, so I closed my eyes to imagine the life of the Body here: a sanctuary ringed in candlelight on Christmas Eve, a chorus singing Wesley’s hymns, a family who surely shouted on Easter morning: “He is Risen indeed!”

But that was before the Last Amen.


The pews are quiet now. Even the clock on the back wall has stopped.

They told me back in journalism school that reporters ought not cry. But how do you visit the grave without shedding a tear?

I came with pen and notebook – and eyes brimming with tears. And I wrote the first line of her obituary like this:

DATELINE: Inwood, Ia. — The Bethel United Methodist Church, where generations of families grew in God’s grace, has died after suffering the effects of old age. She was 125 years old.

She was preceded in death by many children. Survivors include many more.

***

I missed the final farewell.

About 70 people — pastors alongside lifelong members — gathered under this steeple last month to pay their respects.

Some had been baptized here,
prayed for their sick here,
delivered their first official sermons from that pulpit,
watched babies grow up and
get married in front of that altar.

But on that day, about 70 people had come for a funeral — a farewell for their church.

“It really did feel like a funeral,” Evelyn Brown, a church member all of her adult life, told me last week. “A lot of tears were shed that day.” But, she added, they celebrated a life, too.

They sang “Victory in Jesus,” and “Lord of the Dance.” They read God’s reminder that life doesn’t end at the grave:

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
— 1 Cor. 15:55

They said goodbye to a church that had become locally known for welcoming anyone into these doors – regardless of reputation, status, wealth.

“It didn’t make any difference what you wore,” said Brown, 64. “And if you didn’t get around to shaking a new person’s hand before church, you would make sure you did after. That was the beauty of who we were, and I think that’s why it hurts so bad.”

Even now, Brown avoids traveling through the center of town; she doesn’t want to see her Old Friend on display like that, knowing the life inside has drained.

“That church,” she pauses, “ …. Yeah, it meant so much to all of us.”

***


For the last two years, the Rev. Doug Harding has been an eyewitness to this church’s withering. He had been assigned to the job as president of the Iowa Methodist Conference trustees.

“It was kind of like watching an old person die,” Harding said.

And if the church was the one on the deathbed, Harding was – in a sense — the hospice nurse. He watched from the doorway as the heartbroken gathered ’round to say goodbye to an Old Friend.

“We’re dealing with a death in some ways, but the Christian message is that life continues even in death,” Harding said. “Resurrection is part of our belief.”

Last month, Harding changed the locks as church ownership switched hands. He’s now overseeing the sale of the church on behalf of the Methodist conference. This priceless place of worship — where grace flowed down for 125 years — is on the market.

The price: $29,500.

***

Bruggeman, the real-estate broker, said he’s had some interest in the building. One person has considered turning the old church into a museum; another has thought of turning it into residential space.

Harding said he’s seen other Methodist churches in Iowa become antique shops, lawyers’ offices, or retail centers.

But to Jan Hamann, it will always be a place of worship. Her late husband, Ken, served as pastor there for five years.

“I know it’s just a building, but God’s presence was there,” said Hamann, 72. “And that’s where we met God every week. And sometimes, even now, I get a little angry.

“Yet I also realize that you can’t operate a church with 10 people.”

Attendance had dwindled over the years, as older members died. Young families moving into Inwood chose other church denominations and congregations with more children, according to Methodist church members.

So on Aug. 16, they gathered here, in these velvet-dressed pews, for a final send-off. They delivered a final commendation and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. And they walked out those doors one final time, leaving memories in boxes and on old bookshelves.


Jan Hamann helped sort through what was left, and found bittersweet treasures in forgotten places. She discovered a large pulpit Bible and opened the page to find an inscription: “To Pastor and Mrs. Hamann.”

“I had forgotten it was there,” Hamann said. “It was very hard to go through these things, these books, and find that parts of my husband’s ministry were still there.”

Much of what was left has found new life elsewhere.

Some of Hamann’s books ended up in the hands of a new pastor. The hymnals and Bibles from this place found homes in other Iowa churches. The pulpit may someday end up in a new Methodist church.

But what about the real church: the people inside? Where will they go?

“At first I wondered: ‘What am I going to do? Am I through with ministering? Is this the end?’” Hamann recalled last week. “I kept praying that God would show me where he wanted me.”


But she’s found new life, too. She was welcomed by a church east of here. Others are finding church homes, too.

But the pain still cuts deep.

Jesus said his followers ought not hold too tightly to the things of this world, which moth and dust destroy. Instead, he said “store up your treasures in heaven.”

“For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” — Matt. 6:21

Even when we know the Truth, though, it’s hard to say goodbye. It’s painful to drive by a church with a for-sale sign out front — even for those of us who weren’t members of Bethel United Methodist Church. The Bible says that as believers, we rejoice with those who rejoice, and we mourn with those who mourn.

So, on that day, in that room tinted in stained-glass colors, I mourned.

And I rejoiced.

For I knew the Truth: Even when the building falls, the church still stands. The church is not building. It’s a people. And Easter people cling to a cross, an empty tomb and the promise of life everlasting.

(And everyone said … Amen.)

***

My thanks to the members of the Bethel United Methodist Church for letting me tell their story, especially to Jan Hamann and Evelyn Brown. And Jan, sweet one, you are not done ministering — for you ministered to me even this week. You radiate!

Photos: The Methodist church, for sale; velvety pews; stopped clock; empty hangars at door of welcoming; Jesus on stained wall; boxes of treasures; communion set, boxed.

by | September 26, 2009 | 23 comments

23 Comments

  1. Candi

    Jennifer, thanks so much for posting this extremely engaging article. (I so enjoy reading your writing. It doesn't feel like reporting; it feels like a friend telling me a story–a very important story.)

    Thank you for the reminder:
    "Easter people cling to a cross, an empty tomb and the promise of everlasting life."

    That one's good for every kind of grief.

    He is risen indeed!

    Reply
  2. Bina

    You have an amazing talent and I so love to read your writing. That church is so beautiful I almost wish that I could purchase it to save it from possible "death" as a place for the Lord…but then I remember that His place is within the believer…and wherever the believer goes, they can meet with Him there.

    He is risen indeed!!

    Hugs and prayers for you tonight,
    Bina

    Reply
  3. Jessica

    Jennifer, this is absolutely beautiful. You told the story so well, and I, too, mourn and rejoice.

    I worked in a dying Methodist church once, so it resonates with me. It's all so true.

    I'm going to pass this post on to my pastor, if that's okay. I think he would enjoy it.

    Thank you for telling their story. I'm so glad I found it today.

    Reply
  4. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Thank you for your comments. This is a little out-of-character for this blog — in the sense that I don't normally report news stories here. But I felt compelled to tell this story of the little church in my town.

    Thank you for taking the time to wade through it. It's a long piece. 🙂

    Jessica — Yes you may pass it on to your pastor.

    Grace and peace …

    Reply
  5. Jennifer

    What a beautiful story! Such a wonderful tribute to a very special church, which like you said, is the people!

    Reply
  6. Beth.. One Blessed Nana

    Beautifully written and told story! It is sad that a church is empty, but praise Him the spirit of the Lord lives on through the people!

    Reply
  7. RCUBEs

    Beautiful story. Lots of memories stored in that church's hearts. Yes, glory to God! The church is the people not the building and the One Who resides in the church is the One Who never dies. You're an awesome writer. You brought me to that place and I saw the books myself, talked with Mrs. Hamann myself 🙂 God bless you sister!

    Reply
  8. Doug Spurling

    We sat around a camp fire last night at my sister & brother in laws farm. His name; Doug Hamann. No relation, but I relayed your story to them.

    Reading your posts I feel like I've been in prayer.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  9. hope42day

    Here in Michigan, there are several Catholic churches that have closed or are being closed. Many are forming alliances with other churches in their communities. Sad when the familiar of our lives ends, but with Jesus, it can be renewed if we open our hearts and receive the love in the place we never thought we would know.

    Reply
  10. Evette

    You have such a gift for words. Loved this story, and how it relates to the body. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  11. Miriam

    amen and amen

    Reply
  12. Cherie

    I love the journalistic style of this post. Thanks for sharing it. I can imagine the feelings that run so deep. You've given this church and it's members a sort of legacy in this post. That's a gift!

    Reply
  13. coffeehound

    Good to find your blog. We went to ISU together, but you may not remember me. I was on VEISHEA with your brother-in-law. Anyhow, saw your name in the Register a few years back about your soy candle business and was encouraged. It is also encouraging to see where your journey has taken you with God. You have a beautiful way of expressing yourself with words. Contact me if you can some time as we have an online Christian magazine that is constantly looking for contributing writers.
    God bless,
    Neel Bal

    Reply
  14. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Hi Neel! Yes, I remember you. Nice to have you drop in. Thank you for your encouraging comments.

    If you would please: send me your email address, so we can reconnect… Use the Contact Me button on the front page of the blog.

    Reply
  15. elaine @ peace for the journey

    I cannot even find words…

    One of the most beautiful tributes/obituaries I've ever read. This resonates deeply with me, as my own home church put a for sale sign in the front yard not long ago…

    I think God weeps, too, at the declining state of our churches, whether literally or spiritually. Still and yet, his truth marches on. We are the keepers of that truth; we carry him with us wherever we go. Wish I had $30,000 to buy that church. Oh, the dreams I dream along these lines…

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Jennifer. I'd love for it to get more print!

    peace~elaine

    PS: I'm sending the link to my parents, my father is a retired Methodist minister.

    Reply
  16. Robin

    Jennifer I had tears in my eyes after reading your thoughts concerning the death of a church. It is sad that even churches have an ending…thanks for this post.

    Reply
  17. Laura

    How sad.

    It's hard to say goodbye to a place that has meant so much to so many. Sadly, this seems to be happening more frequently these days. Our traditional churches are dying as the nondenominational megachurches thrive. It bears pondering. What's a denomination to do?

    As a body, we need to learn from each other. Grow, change, find God's heart.

    Thanks for sharing this, Jennifer. It's making me think.

    Reply
  18. Maria

    Hi Jennifer!
    My husband and I talk about this all the time… churches closing…
    some locally have become property of universities…
    Churches whose foundations were dug with bare hands…that were build on the shoulders of men and not machine.

    What's changed. That's not a post, that's a book I guess!

    Giving thanks with you today for a church family that praised and worshiped together,
    Maria

    Reply
  19. Craig Finnestad

    Hey Jennifer,

    Very insightful. As a United Methodist pastor I always get a little sad when they read about the churches that have closed down during the previous year. It's kind of like doing a funeral…we celebrate the life but it is still tough to say goodbye.

    Since we started The Water's Edge four years ago, I learned a lot about myself, the Church, and God. I don't know who said it, but we worked liked it depended on us and we prayed like it depended on God. I guess we still do both those things.

    It's kind of ironic, after one year we moved from a middle school to a neighboring high school because we outgrew the space. I remember a few people leaving with tears in their eyes. And that is just from being in a rented space for one year.

    If somebody would come up to me today and tell me that The Water's Edge would be around for another hundred years and during that time it would be a church where people would connect with God, connect with others, and serve the broken — and then it would be done, I would be content and fulfilled. Hopefully these people feel this way too.

    Reply
  20. aubrey

    Jenn- Just thought I would send you a thank you for doing this story. This is the first church I remember attending, my parents never went with me, I remember sitting many Sundays with my grandma Gerritsen. And tracing the veins in the back of her hand and thinking how she must have the softest hands in the world. I remember the little "seat" going up the kitchen stairs. I loved to sit there. And my parents have pictures of a Halloween party there. My parents were married in that church, my grandpas funeral, and a few other things too. But today when I read this entry, my tears ran for these memories, and the memories of my uncle Ken. He passed very unexpectedly sunday morning. I was not close to him, nor was I to that church anymore, but your story made it easier! Thank You, Jennifer you are great!

    Reply
  21. sharilyn

    beautiful.
    sad.
    a lovely tribute.

    i can't help but hope that some lucky person gets to buy the church and convert it into their home… what peace i would feel knowing that for years God's presence and His people had inhabited my home! i do hope, as this would be an appropriate happy ending to the story, don't you think?

    Reply
  22. Rick Mann

    Jan,
    I met a Jan Hamann in 1962 while serving in the Air Force at Sioux City. She was 18 at the time, same age as me, and was attending Cosmetology School in Sioux City. She was my first ‘True Love’ and I did something stupid and she dumped me. We had been dating for quite some time and I guess it was because I was so young I couldn’t bring myself to apologize. A few months later I was transferred to Okinawa, then my father passed away shortly afterwards and Jan just dropped from my mind. Well I’ve been searching for her for over a year, CraigsList, Facebook, etc. with no luck. If you happen to know another Jan Hamann who should be 68 or 69 please let me know. I’m finally ready with an apology. And no I’m not looking to rekindle a romance I’ve been married to a wonderful woman for over 47 years and don’t think I could change.
    Thanks,
    Rick Mann
    Fayetteville, Ga.

    Reply

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