Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Growing Up Baptist


 
My dad, Neil Storms, was the piano player at the First Baptist Church of South Holland. He played the glossy black grand piano wedged into the front left corner near the pulpit. When he was not at the piano, my dad always sat in the first pew.

At First Baptist, no one else sat in the front row, except for the organist, who also sat in the front pew on the right side. The first three pews were always empty. Baptists are known for sitting in the back of the church. Our church sanctuary was one long rectangular room with an unfashionable suspended ceiling. On each side of the auditorium were long pews upholstered in nubby red fabric. The carpet was also red, and the church walls were covered in brown paneling.

The red pews and carpet, which looked rather festive at Christmastime, was often a problem for other occasions. I knew of many brides who moved their wedding ceremonies to another church because the red theme clashed with their chosen colors. The piano and organ resided on either side of the front platform. Behind the pulpit and the platform was a small three-rowed choir loft. Behind that was what we call the “baptismal.”

Baptists believe in adult baptism, where you are dunked or immersed into a tub of water by the pastor as a testimony of your faith and commitment to Jesus. Our baptismal (which looked like a tall hot tub room) was located up front where it could easily be viewed. When someone was baptized, they would flip on the light in that room and the pastor would enter the baptismal in wading boots and a white choir robe to begin the ceremony.

Although there was nothing too out of the ordinary about our sanctuary, there was one major difference between our Baptist church and others I’ve visited. My dad played piano like no other Baptist musician I knew. The tiled floor underneath the piano was literally indented a good inch down from his foot, from when my dad would tap out a beat to our favorite old hymns. A mild-mannered junior high school social studies teacher during the week, on Sundays my dad became the Jerry Lee Lewis of the Baptists.

As a college student, Dad had played in an early rock and roll band called Freddy and the Wildcats. He transferred that same sense of rhythm to Amazing Grace and Blest Be the Tie that Binds. At my church, we sang every hymn up-tempo and with great rhythm and syncopation. One time, during a particularly rousing rendition of Victory in Jesus, Dad had the entire congregation on their feet – almost like we were Pentecostals.

My mom, my brother and sister, and I sat two-thirds of the way back, also on the left side of the church. That was our regular spot. We always sat in the same place, just in front of the high school group, and just behind Mr.and Mrs. Hodges, who were always surrounded by a troop of squirmy grandkids.

I grew up in that Baptist church--I was there, literally, all the time. No exaggeration. We would typically arrive at 9 am on Sunday mornings and were among the last people to leave, about 12:30 pm. We’d return again for Sunday evening service from 5:30 until 7 pm. Every Wednesday evening was family night with kid’s Bible clubs and adult prayer meeting. Thursday night was choir rehearsal. Friday night was youth group. We were there so much, my parents had their own set of keys.

The kids I went to church with had grown up with me. Janet and Rick and Bev and Scott and Julie. We knew each other as babies, as Sunday School classmates, and as high schoolers. We had spent hours together in the church nursery. We had eaten from the same box of animal crackers. We had played with the same toys.

 Our parents had all joined the church in the early 1960s. South Holland was a young suburban Chicago town, Dutch in tradition and conservatism. My parents lived in the neighboring town of Thornton – mainly known for smaller homes and the world’s largest limestone quarry. Although I grew up in Thornton, most of my life was spent in South Holland.

My mom and dad were a part of a church group called the “new marrieds”: Jan and Neil (my parents), Chuck and Ruelene, Dick and Marge, Harold and Bev. They prayed together, played together, and then had babies together. I knew some of my friend’s parents almost as well as I knew my own. They were as much a part of the church as the building itself. My family made church attendance a priority. We even attended strange churches when were out of town on vacation.

 In my house, Sunday mornings were sacred in their tradition and timing. Every Sunday morning my dad cooked scrambled eggs, and alternated between bacon and sausage. He would wake us at 8 a.m., making sure we were scrubbed, dressed, and ready for breakfast. Dad had already been up for hours, and was the designated breakfast maker at our house. Tim, Julie and I dressed up for church – skirts for my sister and I. The much-hated pale blue, short-sleeved shirt, tie and jacket for Tim.

We would pile into one of our early 70s station wagons, the kind with the wood paneling on the sides and leave the house promptly at 9 am for the 10 minute drive to church.

We arrived at church just after the pastor. Dad always had to be there early to practice his piano accompaniment for the day’s service. Mom would make her way up to the nursery or Sunday school classroom to prepare for the kids. I remember running back and forth in the still darkened hallways, waiting for everyone to arrive. I liked the church in those early hours - it seemed cooler, quieter, a place waiting to come alive.

9:30 am was Sunday School for everyone from babies to adults. We met in every corner of the church. Since there were not enough rooms, we made spaces in the cement basement with giant rolling wooden partitions. The adults met in the sanctuary.

When Sunday School ended, we would head upstairs to the foyer, and get ready for church. Dad would be busy, practicing with the church choir, so I would find mom. Gathering all of our Sunday School material, and colleting my sister from the nursery, we would make our way down to our favorite sitting spot.

There was always a lot of visiting. Before services, the church sanctuary would be humming with hellos, hugs, and whispered news: who was sick, who had a baby, what was planned for the week, who was in the hospital.

The Baptist church viewed itself as one large family. From the nursery to the grave, we were enfolded into one another as one cohesive unit. Like family, we didn’t always get along. Like family, there were those strange odd members who you weren’t quite sure about.
 
Yet, we hung together. Through thick and thin we cared about each other and really, really knew each other. I felt as at home in that Baptist cinderblock church as I did in any place I ever lived.
 
It was not only my church, it was truly my home.
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