The Parable of the Magnificent Church

Salem UCC Bell Tower

Once upon a time, in the city of Allentown, PA, a huge and magnificent church was dedicated in 1876. Salem Reformed Church was built on the highest point in the city, on Chew Street between 6th and 7th Streets. The cathedral-like church towered over the surrounding buildings and was visible for miles around to all who approached the city. A great bell was cast to hang in its bell tower, calling all around to worship. The sanctuary seated over 700 and the Sunday School auditorium, the largest in the city and indeed in any nearby city, seated 1800.

A huge pipe organ, built by C. F. Durner of Quakertown was installed in 1885. It was powered by a “Little Giant” water motor. The oak pews were sumptuously padded, unusual in the 19th century. The magnificent stained glass windows, including a spectacular rose window, were made by Thomas Aiken & Co. of Philadelphia.

The altar of Salem UCC

The altar of Salem UCC

After the installation of the organ, the windows, and the bell, a rededication of the building was held in 1885. The Allentown Daily City Item covered the event, reporting every detail of the ceremony of rededication. One paragraph in particular from the article is notable in this area of the country where the German language was still predominant:

From its organization, about ten years ago, Salem Reformed has been a phenomenally successful congregation. While older German congregations of this city have been compelled to introduce English services in order to retain the young people, Salem’s services have always been held in the German language, and the majority of the members are comparatively young people.

However, the pastor, the Rev. Dr. A. J. G. Dubbs, was paying attention to the changes going on around the magnificent building and began introducing English into the services despite opposition from some of the church members. At first, he began conducting the evening services in English, and then gradually over the next ten years nearly all the services were conducted in English.

Fast forward 100 years to the 1970s, and of course there was a magnificent observance of the congregation’s centennial year. Now known as Salem United Church of Christ, the congregation still ministered to some folks in the 7th & Chew area but largely had become what Lyle Schaller called an “Ex-Neighborhood Church.” Downtown Allentown had changed. Many of the factories that had fueled former prosperity had closed, and the social conditions that would be woven into Billy Joel’s famous 1982 song were inexorably under way:

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line.

Iglesia de JesuCristo Pentecostes

Iglesia de JesuCristo Pentecostes

Folks drove in from the suburbs to worship on Sunday morning, less and less connected to the area around the beautiful cathedral-like church. A huge organ endowment had been built over the years, so that each year the organ could be improved – but no such endowment existed for the deteriorating hulk of a boiler that heated the complex and ageing building. The cost of replacing the boiler was substantial enough that consistory members joked bitterly that if the boiler went, they’d have to close the church. By 1980, only a few years after the centennial, attendance had dropped to well under 200, sparse in that vast sanctuary, and most of the building was unused.

The surrounding area became largely Latino over the next decades, and Salem UCC became an English-speaking island in a sea of Spanish. The congregation closed with a final service on Easter, 2007, 131 years after the construction of the building. That magnificent building still stands, its great bell still in the tower; but today a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation worships inside on Sundays.

Let those who have ears to hear, hear.

 


John Jackman on the steps of the former Salem UCC

John Jackman on the steps of the former Salem UCC

I served as Youth Pastor at Salem UCC from 1979-1981 while studying at Moravian Theological Seminary. I loved the magnificent building, the gothic sanctuary, and I enjoyed working with the young folks that were associated with the congregation. I left to work as student pastor at East Hills Moravian Church during my last year of seminary.

I lost touch over the years with the folks at Salem, but was not surprised to find that it had closed. The writing was on the wall when I was there. In many ways, Salem UCC is a parable for me, a parable that many traditional churches needed to hear – though I suspect that already for many of them, it is already too late.

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In Celebration of Laughter

I remember as a child going to the Washington Zoo, and laughing at the monkeys’ antics.  My mother turned to me and said “Anyone who thinks God doesn’t have a sense of humor has never watched monkeys for very long.”  My Dad laughed and said, “Or people, either!”
 
This coming Sunday we will celebrate “Holy Hilarity” Sunday at my church — a great idea that reaches back to a very old Orthodox tradition of gathering to tell jokes after Easter.  The modern repackaging of the idea comes from Cal Samra, the founder of the Fellowship of Merry Christians, a group that has long promoted the healing spiritual power of laughter.

 
Sadly, there has always been a segment of the religious world that has been deceived into thinking of God only as a humorless, grim taskmaster, a group that only allows solemn and serious representations of Jesus.  These folks seem to believe in a God that is modeled more on an abusive parent than the God of the Bible!  But this is the Savior who turned water into wine, who made fun of the Pharisees: “You who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”  This is the God who named Abraham’s son “Laughter!”

Laughter is good for you, it’s a gift of God.  Scientific research has proved in recent years that a good belly laugh creates all kinds of healthful benefits, affirming the writer of Proverbs: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”  The best laughter, both spiritually and mentally, is when we can laugh at ourselves.  That’s when we can accept our foibles, our human weaknesses and see the funny side of them rather than letting guilt and remorse “dry up our bones.”  I can’t be around humorless people too long, for they seem to suck some of the oxygen out of the air and the Spirit out of life.
 
Bruce Harrison

Bruce Harrison

The laughter of bullies, the laughter which seeks to make fun at others’ expense, is not the laughter we’re talking about.  It is the contagious laughter of joy, the rejoicing of a happy heart bubbling forth.  This laughter happens best when we are together, when we are in a group of friends whom we trust and care about – that should tell us something!  We don’t laugh at God, we laugh instead at ourselves when we are foolish and we laugh with joy at the wonderful things that God has given us.  If we take ourselves too seriously, if we take the human side of our institution to seriously, then we are in grave danger of not taking God seriously enough!

One person who loved this tradition was Bruce Harrison.  Bruce showed up every Sunday with a new joke, always and without fail.  He refused to let a stroke destroy his sense of humor or his enjoyment of a good joke.  Or a bad pun, either!  Bruce is one we all miss.
 
Jeanne Carter

Jeanne Carter

Another whom we miss is Jeanne Carter, who passed into the more immediate presence of the Savior last year.  Jeanne was dying of advanced COPD, struggling for every breath — but still she loved to laugh!  During the last weeks of her life, she had been bedridden in the care of our local hospice.  But she was not going to miss Holy Hilarity Sunday, even if it was the last thing she did.  She called her doctor, and told him in no uncertain terms that he had to make whatever arrangements were needed for her to be at church one last time — and it had to be on Holy Hilarity Sunday.  And when the organ prelude began, (a variation on the Looney Tunes theme) there she was, seated in her regular pew — albeit in pajamas and with her oxygen mask — but she was there, and she enjoyed the bejeebers out of the jokes.  It was the last thing that she was able to do outside of hospice.

I hope you have fond memories of some people like Jeanne and Bruce who have brought laughter and joy into your life.  The best thing we can do in their memory is tell a good joke or a bad pun, and enjoy a belly laugh in their honor!

Listen to the Trinity Moravian Choir’s anthem for Holy Hilarity Sunday 2009 – “In Praise of Coffee!”

For more information on Holy Humor Sunday, visit http://www.joyfulnoiseletter.com/hhsunday.asp
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