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Sundays and Stained Glass

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Stained glass BVM.jpg

By Carrie Hagen

My two brothers and I always visited Philadelphia on Sunday mornings when we were kids. Our father served as an itinerant pastor to supplement his counseling income, and often he took us with him to whatever small church had a need and an empty pulpit.  We never knew exactly where we were going as we piled into our beige Dodge minivan -- just that we were leaving Levittown.  I remember fragments of our trips to certain neighborhoods -- Tacony, Kensington, Frankford, Torresdale. I was always a little afraid to get out of the van. The churches weren't always in rough neighborhoods, but to a suburban kid, blocks of row homes on littered streets felt ominous. 

"Behave," my Dad would say, glancing in the rear-view mirror as he parked. We knew that if we were good, we would get to go to 7-11 for treats after the service. We also knew that if we were bad, we would go to 7-11 for treats after the service. We loved our small road trips with our Dad, and he loved taking us on them. It was rare for us to behave so badly that he refused to make a pit stop on the way home.  His love of Big Gulps and Tastykakes kept him from being too strict.

I don't recall much about Dad's sermons other than the fact that he liked the Old Testament character of Elisha. What I remember more is how sad the sanctuaries felt. Many of the struggling congregations met in old churches that they rented for Sunday services. Often, the denominations of the groups inside were different from what ornate lettering advertised over the main entrances. 

As Dad collected his thoughts before each service, my brothers and I would wander in and out of the rows of pews, tracing our fingers along whatever words might have been carved in the wood.  During the message, I would stare at the dull light reflected through dirty stained-glass windows.  I would wonder when an audience had sung the hymn numbers on the wall behind the pulpit -- numbers that didn't match the morning's choruses. It felt as though other voices echoed along with my father's, other listeners filled the empty pews behind me, other breaths weighed down the air around me.  I wished I could get up and walk back down the aisle. I wanted to explore the choir loft and look behind the doors leading from the sanctuary into other places, where secrets clearly awaited.

I stopped accompanying my father on his Sunday trips when I was a teenager. My parents never pushed church on me, and as I would continue to observe in college, Sunday mornings were the perfect time to plan on completing my homework.  Instead, I think I spent the better part of a decade watching reruns of National Lampoon movies rather than going to church.

My husband and I moved to the city eight years ago.  During much of this time, we have church-hopped, never quite finding a place that feels right, or interesting enough to relinquish a few extra hours of sleep on Sundays. But I do long for spiritual guidance. As a new mother in my mid-thirties, I feel myself losing my identity, and I know that I will only find it outside of what society affords me.  So, I stop occasionally as I push my infant's stroller past the vacant churches in our Fairmount neighborhood.  They are products of late-19th century architecture, just like the buildings that held my father's sermons all those years ago.  I stare at the steeples, the towers and the graffiti that mars the granite facades. I look at the stained-glass windows; the colors run dark without the sunlight peering through them, but they are still beautiful, the jewels in the antique beauty that haunts the neighborhood.  Here, on this side of the walls, I am reminded of the mysteries that church held for me as a child.  And although there are bottle caps and dirty napkins next to my feet, I know that I am in the presence of God.  I tell myself that He inhabits the sidewalk as much as the stage.


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