My best memories growing up are of church. I had a painful childhood, and home wasn’t a comfortable place to be. My escape was church, since I was the only one that went there. Four blocks away was East Side Presbyterian Church. It’s not there any more. It is, and it isn’t. The building is still there. It’s still Presbyterian, but it’s a Spanish speaking Presbyterian church, which is as it should be. Even in my day, the language spoken by most of the neighborhood was Spanish. I’m glad that the church is in use, but it also hurts, because what I knew is no longer there. First of all, the Presbyterian elders that I respected, and the Sunday School Superintendent that I avoided because he was always roping me in for something, are all long gone. The people that I respected and looked up to were all older than me. East Side Presbyterian church’s sanctuary is small. I think it can hold 200 people. We had a small but thriving congregation during my childhood and teenage years. I was lucky to be there during the era that the church had the biggest youth group. We were up to 30 at one point. We had retreats, and activities, and were pretty busy, but I had relationships that the rest of the youth group didn’t have, with the older adults, whom we referred to as “The old people”. It makes me cringe now, because it sounds disrespectful. But I was friends with the old people. There was one couple that I adored, Mr. and Mrs.Randolph. We talked often and they were good to me. When the youth group had fundraisers such as bike-a-thons, and walk-a-thons, I signed up all the older adults as my sponsors. When I blew off the last bike-a-thon because I went to a square dance on a date the night before and was too tired the next morning, that Sunday I went to every single one of my sponsors and said “I didn’t go”, and explained why. I got treated to some great stories of their memories of having gone square dancing, and I got my sponsorship money from every single one of them. My fellow youth group memebers were disgusted with me.
Our church, like all Presbyterian churches are run by a group of people called The Session. The Session consisted of twelve elders. To be on the Session, you had to be ordained as an elder. Our elders had a lot of power. Those on the Session made decisions and all of them served communion on Communion Sundays. We had Communion every six weeks, and they were my favorite times. In the Presbyterian church, you sit in the pews, and the elders walk down the aisles and pass these big silver trays of “the elements” as our pastor called them. First they would serve the bread, and then go back and serve the grape juice. There was time before communion for private reflection. Since serving communion took a long time, we sang. We would sing the same songs over and over again in a worshipful manner. They were serious,solemn, holy and peaceful times. I loved them. I very rarely had the attention span to remember sermons, but I did remember music. I soaked up all the old hymns on Sunday mornings and old camp meeting type songs on Sunday nights. We often sang spirituals both Sunday morning and evening. We had an African American choir director named Percy Smith, and he had the choir sing spirituals for some of our anthems. Some of the anthems had copyright dates like 1902 and I hated some of them. But I loved the spirituals. The choir didn’t just sing them. I learned them at every age growing up. Percy wasn’t everywhere. But for some reason, this little, mostly but not completely white Presbyterian church included a lot of spirituals in their worship. In the youth group, we didn’t sing hymns. We sang praise and worship songs. We also sang spirituals.
I had a lot of angst as a teenager, and a hard head. I realized one time that you could tell me until you were blue in the face that God loves me, and I would blow you off. However, sing it to me, and I’ll listen to the message. For me, my spiritual and church life has always been about the music. So I absorbed the music I heard in both morning and evening church. And I absorbed the songs our youth group sang. We would often sing our praise and worship music an hour at a time.
Years passed. I went away to college, and sang in a church choir there. I learned more music. I came home to be married in my dear home church and then went to Germany for three years. We came back reluctantly, and settled in San Antonio. Eventually we left San Antonio for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so my husband could attend seminary. These were some hard, hard, times. The churches we attended played mostly praise and worship music, and we continued to learn them as new ones came out. Music comforted me when it felt like life should be over. I clung to the comfort of God’s love that those songs threw to me.
If you play music now for me that I have known for many years, my mind will go back to where I was when I learned the song, or sang it regularly. My memories are all tied up in the music that we sang.
It’s been 30 years since I went to East Side Presbyterian church. I miss the solemn, holy times and the majestic hymns. I miss the worshipful spirituals. Play any of them, and suddenly I am 14 years old sitting in church, singing, and quietly reflecting about my relationship with God.
Recently, East Side Presbyterian Church has come back to me. It hasn’t come back to me literally, but its music has.
My husband Steve recently met Fr. John, who is the pastor of St. James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia. Steve met Fr. John when Fr John came to the Navy Hospital to visit a very sick parishioner. They started talking and became friends. Fr. John invited Steve to church. It’s small church with a small congregation. It is very historic. It is THE historic church that the Episcopal African American population in Portsmouth have gone to since 1890, when the church has founded. The congregation has doctors and lawyers, professional people and retired military people You see people from all walks of life. There’s a lot of history there. It’s a warm, loving congregation and you feel enveloped with love and welcomed when you go. Steve fell in love with St James, because it reminded him of his family’s church in West Virginia. I had liked the WV church for the same reason, that I had liked East Side.
Eventually I visited St James. It had the homey feel that I missed, and the solemness, serious worship that I’d grown up with. The music was and is the exact same type of music that I grew up with. I was unprepared for this and was suddenly transported back 30 years in time. I wept. I wept for the memories of the good times, and the worshipful times. I wept because those times are no more and I can’t recreate them. And then I wept because I was finally hearing and singing the old songs after 30 years.
When I can, I accompany my husband to St James. I haven’t gone very many times, but I plan to keep going with him. Every time I go, I’m suddenly whisked back 30 years in time, and my heart breaks. I cry, and I cry hard. I cry for the friendships now lapsed, and I cry in remembrance. Sing the old song “Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me, as thou didst break the bread besides the sea” as we did today at St James and it’s 1974 . I am 15 years old. I’m caught up in worship and lost in the song as we sing it over and over and over again. I see Elder Herschel Schaefer pass out communion. I see my old Sunday school teacher, another elder, passing out the trays as well. I’m there. And then suddenly I’m not. I’m sitting in a pew at St James in Portsmouth Virginia. It’s the year 2009 and this year I will be 50 years old. And the tears are pouring down my checks uncontrollably, as my memories take me back to where I was with almost every song. I love hearing the old hymns. I really, really do. But they’re painful, because they remind me that what I had is no longer and I can not go back. But at St James Episcopal Church, in Portsmouth Virginia, I come awfully close.