I’m told that my maternal grandfather, Joseph Archibald Walters (1885-1956), was a godly and gentle man. I never knew him, as he passed away eight years before I was born. But the stories my mother told me about him always made him sound like the kind of man I would have liked.
Grandpa was a Methodist.
I’m told that he was very active in the Epworth United Methodist church and frequently taught Sunday School. The church’s prominent building was built on the triangle of land at the intersection of Butler Avenue and what was then East Washington Street in New Castle, Pennsylvania. You can see an artist’s rendering of the building at the top of this post. After an 18-month building project, the building had its first service on Sunday, July 12, 1931. My Grandpa would’ve been 46 at the time. My mother was not yet born, but I’m sure Grandpa was proud.
So my mom’s parents were Methodists, and so my Mom was a Methodist, and so my brother and I were Methodists. I don’t believe most people, at least back then, gave church loyalty much thought. Along with the family surname, denominational legacies were dutifully passed down from one generation to the next, received without question, and usually held for the remainder of one’s life.
As I was growing up, I never heard anyone talk about salvation or having a relationship with God. I know the old hymns, and still sing many of them, so we certainly sang about it. But no one ever talked about it, at least in my world. Spirituality wasn’t a thing back then. Going to church was a thing. And so that’s the lens through which I’ll tell this early part of my spiritual story.
I remember attending Sunday School in that building as a child many years later. I never liked it. I remember the place feeling cold and unwelcoming and the people as not being very friendly. The elderly woman who taught my Sunday School Class was probably someone’s kindly grandmother, but through this child’s eyes she seemed to be impatient and short-tempered.
My parents had moved from New Castle out to the country when I was only a year old, but kept returning to the Epworth church for a number of years thereafter. I just checked the map and our house in the country was only about 8 miles from the Epworth church, but as a kid, it seemed to me like it was on the other end of the state. So when my mother decided to start attending the Methodist church in Volant (only about 3 miles away), my brother and I saw our lives as much improved.
The Volant United Methodist Church became my church. The people were friendlier, and the Sunday School classes were as enjoyable as Sunday School classes could be back in those days.
At this point I should probably pause to say a few things about my parents’ involvement with church. My Dad grew up in a broken home. During the Depression, his father was forced to move to Ohio to find work, and Grandma Nellie, so I’m told, refused to go with him. She insisted that he build her a house, which he did, and then she divorced him. My Dad grew up with Grandma Nellie and while he knew his father, he never had any real relationship with him. In those days, in our corner of Western Pennsylvania, single-parent families were rare, and Dad always felt a little different and insecure because he didn’t have a father. Grandma Nellie attended a few different churches while my Dad was growing up. At least one was a Methodist church, but one, I believe, was some kind of Pentecostal or Holiness church. On my Dad’s first visit there, they asked him to pray. My Dad never went back there again. I’m not sure he went anywhere again until he met my mother.
From an early age, I understood the need to be sensitive to the perceptions of others, and that story has always stuck with me and became part of my church ethic. You never embarrass anyone in public by asking them to do something you haven’t cleared with them beforehand.
So church for my parents was always a bit of a bargain. When my mom could cajole my Dad into going, he went. Most often, though, he didn’t. And as I moved toward my teenage years, my Mom’s attendance started slipping too. But we had other issues going on in our family at the time, things which I’ll save for another post.
Enter Emmy Lou Elder. Emmy Lou was one of the sweetest women our little community knew. She and her husband Carl lived on a farm a few miles down the road from us, and she offered to stop and pick up my brother and I and take us to church in Volant, which she did faithfully for years. Bringing people to church was Emmy Lou’s calling, and she lived out that calling faithfully and with joy. We came to love Emmy Lou because she loved us. We came to love Carl, too. Carl was a bit of a cut-up (which is probably understating it by a fair bit). He was always good for a joke, and for a couple of young kids, that was all it took to endear him to us. That and the fact that after church he often took us across the street to Tanner’s Mini-Mart and bought us “a bar of candy.” Fun AND candy – the way to a child’s heart.
I remember the string of ministers that passed through Volant in those days. Fresh out of seminary, Oden Warman came to Volant in 1976 after the congregation’s beloved Rev. John Matthews died. We started attending Volant shortly thereafter, so Rev. Warman was the first minister I ever got to know personally. He was a kind and good man who ministered to our family during a rough time. He took me out for ice cream one time just to see how I was holding up, and was the first person in my life to tell me he thought I’d make a good minister. I will always believe that God spoke to me through him during those days, and I will always think of him fondly.
Rev. Matthews, his predecessor, was older and deeply loved by the congregation. Rev. Warman was young. Over the years I’ve learned that it is exceedingly difficult to follow a well-loved minister into a church. You will constantly be compared to whoever you replaced, and as good and gifted as you might be, it’ll always be a bit of an uphill slog. I know Rev. Warman experienced some of that at Volant. Even as a young adolescent, I heard some of the criticism, and it never made sense to me. In 1981, Rev. Warman left and went on to serve other churches. Google tells me he retired a few years ago. I hope his life is peaceful.
Rev. Bill Hess was the next minister to come to Volant. I liked him as well. He was a nature lover, like me, and often spoke of the beauty of God’s creation. I appreciated that, but apparently others didn’t. Or maybe it was the fact that he occasionally showed up at the church building wearing shorts. Oh, the horrors of short pants. Nearly everyone else wore shorts in the summer, but I’ve learned that there are different rules for ministers. The Methodist church had a pastor/parish committee, made up of about 6-8 people, ostensibly to serve as a liaison group between the minister and the congregation. For reasons I’ll never understand, that little group in Volant got it in their head that Rev. Hess had to go. I was out of high school when it all came to a head, and remember feeling that he was being treated unfairly and with some decidedly un-Christian motives. That was the first time I’d seen a small group of influential church members rise up and attack their minister, and it would portend things to come in my own life. I was off at Penn State in 1987 when Rev. Hess retired and left Volant. I never knew whether he was asked to move on or whether he just got tired of the fray, tipped his hat and walked away.
For me, the high points of my bourgeoning spiritual life happened during the Hess years, I became a lot more involved in church. I’d gone through confirmation (the Methodist church’s initiation process) around age 12, with Rev. Warman, and was now considered a full-fledged member. I’ve always loved singing, and in the 10th grade, I joined the chorus in high school, and the choir at church. I also started singing solos in church on occasion. “Special Music,” they called it. I’d show up on Sunday with a boom box and an accompaniment tape, and when it was my turn, I’d get up, turn the tape on and sing. It was meaningful to me, and, I believe, a blessing to the church.
I came also to cherish the Christmas Eve services. Christmas was steeped in tradition in our family, and had always been my favorite time of year, but as a teenager, I began to really appreciate the spiritual side of Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we’d go to church for the candlelight service, then come home, light the luminaries which lined our sidewalk, and wait for my aunt, uncle and cousins to show up for our annual family Christmas Eve/birthday party. You see, fate had handed my Uncle Al the unfortunate condition of having been born on December 24. My brother and I always felt he’d been cheated because his birthday presents were also his Christmas presents. He’d have gotten a bigger overall haul had his parents had better timing. 😉
During one of those Christmas Eve services, I heard the only sermon I remember from my youth. Volant UMC had brought in a guest speaker for Christmas Eve, which they often did. If I remember correctly (which is big “IF”), this man worked for the Salvation Army. His sermon centered on a story from Scripture – something we didn’t always see at the Volant Methodist church. The story is a familiar one to most Christians, but it was the first time I’d heard it. It’s found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and is the story of Jesus and his disciples crossing the sea during a storm. Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the boat, and the terrified disciples wake him with the words, “Don’t you care that we’re all about to drown?” Jesus gets up, yawns, stretches, and then rebukes the wind and waves and the sea becomes as calm as a mill pond. You can read the whole story in Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:36-41, or Luke 8:22-25, but if you want to hear it like I heard it you’ll need to read it from the King James Version. The line from that story that’s stuck with me for all these years came from the dumbfounded disciples: “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The preacher was a gifted storyteller, and I hung on every word. I understood the story, and the fear, and the miracle, and the absolute dumbfounded wonder of the disciples as they contemplated the real identity of this Jesus. God spoke to me that night through that preacher, and I walked out of church that night feeling closer to God than I’d ever felt in my life and wanting to be closer yet.
In 1987, I moved to Montana, and at that point largely walked away from the Methodist church. I didn’t like the way I’d seen that group in Volant treat Rev. Hess, but on top of that, the Methodist Church, Inc. was starting to support some things politically that I disagreed with and felt I could no longer support with my membership.
In graduate school, I did some research into John Wesley, founder of the movement that would become Methodism. I came to appreciate Wesley’s heart and could see how Methodism had grown out of his influence. Interestingly, in later years some of my best spiritual friends turned out to be former Methodists.
Growing up Methodist was formative for me. Not everything was wonderful, certainly, but not everything is wonderful for anyone growing up in any religious tradition. I saw my first glimpses into how very difficult it is to be a minister and how carnivorous the church can be towards the people who serve it. But there were some wonderful people as well – ministers and lay people alike – who I carry in my heart to this day. There were Emmy Lou and Carl Elder and their sons, certainly. Rev. Warman and Rev. Hess, for sure. But there were others: Alex Arrow, a lay Bible teacher who loved Scripture and took it seriously. He was a bit of a voice crying in the wilderness at that church in those days, but he taught me that the Bible was important. And then there was Jessie Hutsler, a sweet elderly lady who made the best dill pickles the world has ever seen.
And without a doubt, God was there, at work as he always is, using exceedingly flawed people and imperfect church structures to nurture the heart of a young boy and bid him to come closer.
Next: Old Life/New Life