“For me … ruin was part of the draw.” — Virgil Wander
I was called in 2020 to help revitalize a congregation that was closed to the public. It was a strange beginning. For the first four months, I was never in the same room with anyone from First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I began by calling members, conducting meetings on Zoom, and preaching to my iPhone in an empty sanctuary, always wondering if anyone was on the other side.
My official title was “Part-Time, Stated-Supply Pastor for Revitalization.” I’ve never had business cards before but that mouthful made it tempting to make some. By the time we were able to re-gather, it became clear the church would not survive. We had 20 active members.
We shifted focus from revitalization to faithfully closing the church after 174 years of ministry. Faithfully. I try to limit adverbs in my writing but this one matters. Faithfully closing. How do you celebrate and honor 174 years of ministry in a few months, give people time to grieve, try to connect the members to new congregations as if 60 years of relationships can just emerge, hold out hope that God is still at work in us and among us and through us, sell a big, old building with beautiful stained glass and a glorious sanctuary and bathrooms with missing tiles, disintegrating drapery and toilets so old they probably use about 1,000 gallons with each flush?
I try to limit adverbs in my writing but this one matters. Faithfully closing.
I baptized four-month-old Alys four months before we closed. The first person baptized in this congregation was baptized before the Civil War. We found handwritten minutes of elders’ meetings from the 1870s. The decor of the building still held strong to the 1970s. I joked with my pastor friends that a decade ago I assumed I would be planting churches; instead, I am closing them.
One friend suggested my new business card could read “Doug Basler — Church Killer: He’s like Round-Up for your congregation.”
I was reading Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander while we closed our church. Re-reading it, actually. I am an Enger fan. The midwestern storytelling and poetic prose of Peace Like a River rekindled my love for fiction in my early years as a pastor and I eagerly await Enger’s subsequent novels, always wishing he would write faster.
The wonder of Virgil Wander is the community of characters. The story, which Virgil narrates, takes place in the fictitious Greenstone, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior. He recently was released from the hospital after his “heartbroken Pontiac breached a safety barrier and made a long, lovely, some might say cinematic arc into the churning lake.” Marcus Jetty, a local scrap-store owner who was combing the beach for sellable junk, pulled Virgil from the water. Virgil remains concussed but otherwise uninjured; his memory is slow to return and adjectives, in particular, prove elusive. Virgil’s depleted vocabulary is minor compared to the more dramatic transformation his run-in with death produced. Virgil is a different man. He refers to his pre-crash self as the “Previous Tenant.” He introduces his story with this:
“Now I think the picture was unspooling all along and I just failed to notice. The obvious really isn’t so — at least it wasn’t to me, a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.
If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself – that is, when my seeing of it began to shift – it would be the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom.”
The “unspooling” picture is Virgil’s life. Virgil, a bachelor, owns the Empress Theater — an old-fashioned, single-screen movie theater where he still does a live welcome before each night’s showing. The Empress has not made money in years. Buckets scattered around the auditorium catch leaks from the roof.
Virgil purchased the Empress Theater under the “doltish conviction that romance finally wins.” Even the previous owner did his best to try and talk him out of the deal.
Virgil’s parents had died in a train wreck on a mission trip to Mexico when he was in high school. He attended seminary, but it didn’t take, so he began a new life in Greenstone. He inherited a closet full of illegal reels of old films — some classics and some just old. The theater became a haven of fellowship and community and the pirated films the catalyst for late-night parties where Virgil gathered friends for dinner and a movie. The meals became potlucks reminiscent of gatherings in the Des Moines First Presbyterian Church basement on a Sunday afternoon.
Enger writes from Virgil’s perspective, “When I came to Greenstone as a grown orphan and failed theology student,” Virgil narrates, “the town was already past — the mines finished, the slake plant padlocked. Kids would shout on Main Street and listen for the echo … For me, ruin was part of the draw.
In 1987 you could buy a house a block off the lake for nine thousand dollars, or a movie theater with an art deco marquee and catastrophic upholstery for thirty. I was fresh out of God but had adequate cash. I did both.”
Virgil’s dilapidated Empress Theater reminded me of our church building. The stench of dog urine from a previous pastor’s pets greeted you in the office. Water damage stained the basement walls and the fellowship hall ceiling. Half-inch, clear tubing emerged from a closet and emptied into a drain in the middle of the main bathroom floor. You had to step over it to get to the toilet.
Let’s just say: the church growth movement would have a few recommendations on some upgrades. And rightly so, the church deferred major work for decades. Patches were patched, and liberal use of Comet with bleach – the white powder in the green can, ubiquitous to church janitor closets – attempted to mask smells. But there was more happening in the building than neglected repairs. Unlikely acquaintances forged friendships — Kathy and Midge, Molly and Steve, Gladys and Nate. Meals were shared. Prayers were prayed and answered. The gospel, read. A people gathered around a table and communed with the living God of the universe.
Mistakes were made, some not easily forgiven. The church bought goats for families through Heifer International. Kids visited summer camp. Families and members endured cancer and death and divorce. Couples committed their lives to one another and their marriage to God. Elders and deacons: elected, ordained and prayed over. And they worshiped Jesus.
It is hard to imagine another place where this particular group of people would have gathered together for a common purpose.
These same types of things happen anywhere, everywhere, all the time. But it is hard to imagine another place where this particular group of people would have gathered together for a common purpose. Eugene Peterson reminds us in his book Subversive Spirituality:
“The work of salvation is always local. Geography is as much a part of the gospel as theology. The creation of land and water, star and planet, tree and mountain, grass and flower provides ground and environment for the blessings of providence and the mysteries of salvation … nothing spiritual in our scripture is served up apart from material … this street, these trees, this humidity, these houses. Without reverence for the locale, obedience floats on the clouds of abstraction.”
Ruins, separation and faith
I am writing this on a muggy July afternoon in Des Moines, Iowa. I know “this humidity.” My mom used to say these were the days on the farm when you needed gills more than lungs.
One of our final major purchases as a congregation was an air conditioner for the sanctuary because of “this humidity.” Air conditioning wasn’t an issue when I pastored in a coastal town in the Pacific Northwest (at least not yet). But we were in east Des Moines. It was on this water-stained linoleum tile and with these floral-patterned coffee mugs with jugs of powdered creamer that would never fully dissolve at 3100 Easton Boulevard where the life of Christ was formed in this congregation.
Bil picked up the church’s mail every day from the hand-painted mailbox at the parking lot entrance. He dropped off the mail in the office and walked through the building, checking for leaks or lights left on by negligent staff (namely, me). He changed light bulbs, fixed toilets, ran the sound system and maintained the furnace. Bil was the first one there on Sunday mornings and the last to leave — and always in a full suit.
The church building had an inaccessible courtyard off the front entrance, sunken down a story below the main level of the building and was there, as far as I could tell, for aesthetic reasons. It housed a stone sundial donated to the church years ago and some nondescript shrubs around the windows. Bil, who is in his 80s, would lower a push mower by rope into the courtyard, climb down a fire-escape ladder, mow the small strip of grass and then hoist the mower back up again.
Imagine being told you can no longer go to a place that you returned to every day for decades, a place you returned to not because you had to, but because it was where you wanted to be. But now it is going to be closed, sold, and, depending on the buyer, it might be torn down and turned into an apartment complex or a storage facility. Bil’s daily liturgy was as central to who he is as a disciple as anything we would do on Sunday mornings.
Imagine being told you can no longer go to a place that you returned to every day for decades, a place you returned to not because you had to, but because it was where you wanted to be.
In the Gospel narratives, Peter first becomes a disciple while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Luke 5). Later, while Jesus was off praying on his own, the disciples began to sail across the sea in the middle of the night. As dawn approaches, Jesus walks to them on top of the water. The disciples are terrified. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:27). Jesus does and Peter walks, albeit briefly, on the waters of Galilee.
At the end of John’s Gospel, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, just hours before the crucifixion. After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and some of the other disciples are back at the sea fishing. Jesus meets them for breakfast. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus says to him, “Feed my lambs.” This happens two more times. Three denials. Three restorations. Peter is forgiven and recommissioned at the shoreline on the waters of Galilee (John 21:15-19).
Peter could have met Jesus anywhere. It could have happened in Capernaum at the market or at a meal. Jesus meets Zacchaeus in a tree. Peter could have been a disciple even if the Sea of Galilee never existed. But it is hard to imagine that Peter ever looked at that lake without connecting it to the most significant moments of his life. I can’t help but wonder what the Apostle Peter would think if he heard that the Sea of Galilee was going to be drained and filled in to put in some condos and a Chick-fil-a.
I can’t help but wonder what the Apostle Peter would think if he heard that the Sea of Galilee was going to be drained and filled in to put in some condos and a Chick-fil-a.
In the same way, it will be hard for Bil to separate his faith from his role as a volunteer maintenance man for the First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines. Kathy can teach adult Sunday school for another congregation, but it will be in a different classroom than the one she has been in for the past decade. Nate and Andrea will find another nursery room in another church building to take their daughters, but the nursery won’t have the same Garden of Eden mural on the wall with Eve’s hair and some tree branches strategically placed to cover her’s and Adam’s bodies or the same seven-foot stuffed-animal boa constrictor for Gwyn to drag down the hall.
According to the statistical report of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), there are currently 1,770 Presbyterian churches (20% of the denomination in 2022) with fewer than 25 members. A few years ago my response to that number would have been: “Why do these places hold on for so long?” The statistics on churches that size becoming viable, healthy congregations again are extremely low. Building maintenance alone often costs far more than the giving capacity of the congregations.
Wouldn’t the denomination be better served if those buildings were sold and the money used for missions and church planting? Wouldn’t it make sense for some of those congregations to merge and join forces? Couldn’t the buildings and land serve their communities in better ways? In places where the neighborhoods have changed dramatically, wouldn’t it be better to have churches that resemble the new demographics of the neighborhood? I am sure the answer to these questions is still “yes, probably.” I can’t rationalize keeping them open from any practical or even missional perspective. The same could be said of Virgil Wander’s Empress Theater. He sells only a handful of tickets each night.
And yet. Some account must be given to the reality that God has been at work in the lives of Bil and Kathy and Nate and Gwyn and Midge in this particular building and in the lives of generations before them.
The congregation I served in Washington would hold a 12-hour prayer vigil on Good Friday. People volunteered for half-hour time slots from six in the morning until six at night. We would often have a Good Friday service immediately following the vigil. Several years ago, my parents were visiting us during Easter weekend, and we went to the church on Friday night.
“I love to enter into a room that has been prayed in all day,” my mom said.
I didn’t understand what she meant exactly. The sanctuary looked as it had the day before when no one entered it to pray. The temperature was the same, the pews, the candles on the Lord’s Table, the banners, the grand piano and organ all were in the same spots; the giant large-print Bible sat on the table, opened to the same passage in Isaiah as it had been for weeks. But that day people had come and reckoned with God for 30 minutes and God, in turn, had reckoned with them. My mom could sense the difference in the room.
I am not sure what account must be given. By the time anyone reads this, First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines will no longer exist as a congregation. The building will have been sold and either used by a new congregation or demolished in order to use the space for other purposes. There is, of course, the danger of nostalgia, a wistful longing for a past that was never truly the reality we imagine it now. I also am aware of the danger of the idolatry of buildings. Plenty of 12-step groups have been denied access to church buildings because the hearts of the elder board couldn’t see beyond coffee stains on the carpets and cigarette butts in the parking lot. Abuses of all kinds have happened in church buildings. A place that was light and life for one individual may have only been darkness and death for another.
Virgil Wander ends with some semblance of hope. The Empress Theater gets a new roof. A few businesses in Greenstone begin to prosper. Virgil gets the girl. But like most rural towns in America, its future is unknown and its past mostly vacated or bulldozed away. I trust the members of First Presbyterian Church have a brighter future than that. God has begun a good work in them and will carry it on to the day of Christ.
I had the privilege of witnessing the fruit of that good work and attempting to steward it as the congregation’s last pastor.
It is, nonetheless, sad that the place where much of that good work began will no longer be.
Photos courtesy of Doug Basler, Andrea Boulton and Kathy Smith.