I grew up just north of the Highlandtown section of Baltimore. Ours was a safe and tight knit community, and the church we attended was approximately one-half block from our front door. My parents were very active in the church and so from a young age my brother and I attended church, Sunday school and summer bible school. When I grew older, I studied catechism, participated in youth group, sang in the choir, went to a church sponsored summer camp, took orders for Christmas candy, Easter eggs and bake sale fundraisers, and waited tables at church suppers and bazaars. The people who attended the church lived in the neighborhood as well, forming an almost-like-family bond that has remained unbroken.
There are many rich memories of St. Matthews, including the new hope of Easter, with the chancel rife with sweet lilies or the midnight Christmas Eve service in that shadowed, candlelit and almost magical space normally only seen in daylight. I can see still the stained glass window presented by the Ladies Aid Society and paid for with hard earned pennies in the 1930’s, and remember the steep staircase leading from the church basement which the choir climbed every Sunday morning, balancing hymnals and trying not to trip on our too long choir robes.
Back in the 1950-60’s it seemed as if life would always go on this way. But it hasn’t. And of course, as one gets older, one realizes that it never does.
I graduated high school, went on to college, got married, moved out of state. My parents remained in their home, as the neighborhood experienced a long series of demographic changes. Some sold their homes and left for the suburbs and a swath of green lawn. Elderly neighbors gave up housekeeping and moved in with their children in faraway places or to distant retirement homes. People died. Suddenly the world I grew up in was gone. I know it took place over years, but it sometimes feels as though it disappeared in a poof – like magic – here one day and gone the next.
The church of my childhood still exists, now in a continuing decaying neighborhood. Given economic realities and the general societal move from religion, the church struggles daily to maintain its existence. One lone participant remains from my childhood – all others are gone, just like the other churches that thrived in that once lovely neighborhood and then fell slowly, one by one, like a crumbling row of dominos.
When I pass through the neighborhoods of my current life, I frequently see church buildings in disrepair. Others have been sold and converted to businesses other than that of saving souls. I think of the people who worshipped there, who gave pieces of their lives and incomes, completely out of faith. Like my maternal grandmother, a founder of St. Matthews, I expect many are gone from this earth, but in their memory a piece of me laments the loss of places built out of their devotion – places they thought would survive them, perhaps forever.
Certainly one could make the case that my heart twinges arise from a lament for the loss of my own innocence and youth. I am no longer that young girl who attended Sunday school and served tables at the church supper. A piece of her survives in me, but life has given me many changes and I no longer want to be fully her. The decline of neighborhood churches is certainly entangled with the loss of the comforting nest that inner city neighborhoods once were, a dissolving of my link to the more innocent world I grew up in and perhaps for America’s lost innocence as well.