Old Church

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.

church (2)

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.

lambwindow (2)

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.

Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper


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