The loveliest building in town,
some might even say the only pretty one,
unquestionably the only church
worthy of architectural notice,
in Oologah, Oklahoma, the town
that time misspelled—the key
players being the post office
and a drunken sign painter—
known, if at all, for a lake,
Will Rogers, and a whole lot
of trains (also storm prone,
so if the train in the night doesn’t whistle,
you’re probably in for it),
the old Methodist church,
a wood-frame structure, white,
with a red paneled door that says
“picturesque American small-town church”
better than any description of it does;
if you were writing the textbook, you
would choose it for the illustration.
Angled into the corner of Locust and Alta,
adjacent to the city park, its
congregation outgrew, abandoned it,
built anew, a spacious but generic
“facility,” out where the old highway
meets the new one, with a big parking lot.
The town government bought the
fellowship hall for municipal use,
but obviously didn’t need a church.
There was talk of conversion
to a library, a peaceful reading room
making the most of stained glass and hardwoods.
But “prohibitively expensive” inevitably
entered the conversation, the threat
of demolition not ruled out.
The nave sits square with the streets,
the narthex (maybe Methodists
call it something different?) with steeple
and bell turned on the bias.
Though I’ve never been inside,
I’ve been in enough other ones
to guess about what it looks like:
white walls, red-carpeted aisles,
time-worn wooden pews. The exterior
not ornate, its beauty in simplicity.
The windows, though, are marvelous,
depicting Christological symbols
rather than pictorial narrative:
a lamb, a star, a dove, a fish, a chalice,
a theology in fragments of glass.
The building reminds me of a similar,
though less exemplary, church
in my home town, long vacant,
windows boarded over—the result
of a dwindling congregation,
members dying off, their children
moving away, rather than a growing one.
Not among the Methodists, though
I served as musician for one of their
churches once, my interest lies
mainly in the architecture, but still,
a church, or any house of religion,
abandoned seems weirdly lonesome, empty.
What happens to belief
when the believers all depart?
The Spirit goes, it’s said, where
the gathering takes place,
but what of the spirits of those
whose lives passed through here,
the God-fearing farmers, mechanics, and clerks;
the singers of hymns, bakers of cookies,
mowers of grass, bearers of flowers;
the christened, the married,
the unmarriageable, the dead?
Even outside, I intimate their presence,
don’t think they’ve moved out
to the highway.
T. Allen Culpepper