Churches are perplexing. They are meant to be everyone’s space to call their own. Signs on the outside proclaim anyone is welcome; often, the doors are unlocked. Yet at the same time, they are no one’s to fully live in. Often, staying in churches, we feel the need to be be tidy and compressed, to wake up early just to put away our sleeping things. Indeed, I have found, the churches we have stayed at often have an atmosphere that is institutional and sparse. Though all are welcome, no one feels at home enough to leave their mark. But not this church. The carpeted room we sleep in, with its grandfather clock and flowery curtains, could be mistaken for someone’s living room. Every room has paintings and flower vases. Who put them there, I wonder? Who took the time to buy them, to place them just so? This church holds a history, both deliberate and accidental, woven from the threads of a hundred tiny details. Here are a few that I have noticed.
One closet-sized room adjacent to the chapel, empty but for a pile of ribbon and a cloth doll sitting on a wooden chair.
Countless aged, tiny bath rooms with porcelain sinks and paintings on the walls. They are hidden, tucked at the ends of hallways and behind meeting rooms.
An artificial Christmas tree, balls and ribbons draped across it, leaned against a coca cola vending machine. A second fake tree a few doors down in front of a locked closet.
In the corner of a storage room – surrounded by chairs, ladders, a bulletin board and a basketball net – a thick poster board showing Holyoke’s new Green High Performance Computer Center.
A series of locked, numbered doors. Their scalloped glass windows glow with light from inside.
An informational panel at the entrance to the chapel with a newspaper clipping from 1919 detailing how a fire almost destroyed the church.
A basement industrial kitchen, vacant and clean except for a small pile of religious books on the counter, placed on top of a flowered cloth.
Stuck far above eye level in a dim back hallway, a purposely weathered wooden sign that says only ‘Global Humanity’.
In play area, one wall painted with a squirrel, colored balloons tied to his tail. In cursive below, letters spell “Herbie”.
Covering the fireplace in the room where we sleep, a sign made to look like a vision test, with letters getting smaller towards the bottom. It says, “Live the life you have imagined. Simply become who you are. Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
Perhaps because this church seems more full, less clean and vacant, than others we have stayed at, I am more aware of how little we know about the community we have found ourselves in. Every detail I found, every quirky object, is just a tiny clue to a long and complicated history. We arrived here hoping to influence and change and motivate, but there is so much we don’t know. So much that we cannot hope to learn in the ten days we will call this church our home. All we can do is observe the unusual details, and understand that they hint at a history more nuanced than we realize.
If someone were to walk through the church now, they would find another unusual detail. In an otherwise clean room, leaned up against tables covered in lacy white cloths, a room full of bicycles. Some still shiny, others smudged with the rust and dirt and grease of a long journey.