A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Old First Church

Today I attended the last service at Old First Church in Springfield. Founded in 1637, just one year after William Pynchon bought the land it sits on (along with the rest of Springfield, Longmeadow, and Agawam) for "eighteen fatham of wampam, eighteen coates, 18 hatchets, 18 howes, and 18 knifes," it is one of the oldest churches in the country. The current building is the fourth meeting house, built in 1819.

At a meeting last September, the membership of the struggling church voted to cease worship services and programming activities effective January 1, 2008. The congregation only numbered 150, maintenance costs were huge, and the church had depleted almost all of its endowment trying to stay afloat.

The service was very, very sad, with hymns like "We gather here to bid farewell," and weeping members sharing their memories. Everyone concluded that what had made Old First Church special was the people, not the place, and that they would continue to support one another even though the building was closing its doors.

I guess I was the only one there wondering, who speaks for the building? But, in fact, the City of Springfield has just agreed to buy it for $900,000, possibly to use it as a meeting place. If incoming mayor Sarno doesn't decide to tear it down or morph it into a casino, I guess that's good news.

When the first meeting house was built in 1645 (before that, services were probably held in people's homes), there was no separation of church and state. Church services, marriages, funerals, and town meetings alike were held in the meeting house. Throughout the settlement's first century of existence, residents, beginning with John Pynchon, rented out portions of the building for the storage of grain. One of the requirements for service as a deputy of the general court was soundness "in judgment concerning the many points of the Christian religion, as they have been held forth & acknowledged by the generality of the Protestant orthodox writers." So preserving the building and using it for public gatherings of a secular nature makes perfect sense.

Old First Church is about five blocks from my house. Within five miles of me are at least a dozen other churches of the same denomination, United Church of Christ. Although a 20th-century trend toward unity of traditional Christian denominations culminated in 1957 with the formation of the UCC, a counter-trend of formation of new denominations has continued. So you've got the Family Church, the World Tomorrow Church, the Victory Cathedral, the New Creation Discipleship Ministries, the All Nations Church of God, the Glorious Gospel Church, the Temple of Praise...and most of these are in the heart of the city. I pass four different churches when I walk around the block every morning with the dog.

What was special about Old First Church was its social progressivism. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and host to abolitionist John Brown. It was host to the city's oldest and largest AA meeting, and Open Pantry's Emergency Food Program and the Loaves and Fishes meal program. It wasn't easy, despite all the churches in town, to find new locations for those last two; as an OP board member, I've got all the program reports to prove it. Let's see who'll come forward to take up the burden now.

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