Time Machine: Church Tour Reconnects Daughter to Father
by Toni Lepeska on July 26, 2017
Have you ever felt like a social misfit? The feeling was never greater for me than at the mega church I attended in junior high school. But I’d put that out of my mind until this past weekend.
I dressed for comfort and convenience, not for style and statement. I wore my hair straight and tucked behind my ears, though big ‘80s ‘dos were in. I lived in a double-wide trailer across the state line in rural Mississippi, and I went to a public school, not a private one.
My peers at the Memphis church wore alligators over their hearts, braces on their teeth and pennies in their loafers. My parents couldn’t afford those things. So I never asked for them.
At our home, my mother taught me women were mental and spiritual equals. At a church retreat, when I mimicked her and said I supported the Equal Rights Amendment, my older teenage group leader, a boy, shook his head like I’d given a gravely wrong answer.
My father sold insurance. After I grew up, he found a job more suited to his talents, but these years were the lean ones. He wore a striped sports jacket and a solid pair of slacks to church. The other fathers wore matching suits. But I wasn’t ashamed of Dad. I adored my father.
He sang in the sanctuary choir. My mother watched him from her TV at home. Dad loved to sing. He must have loved it so much that he didn’t let the stark differences in “us” and “them” deter him from participating. Dad loved food, too. On Sunday afternoons, he helped feed my junior high choir group before evening Bible study.
I found acceptance within a group of girls: Janet, Lori and Ginger. My three friends wore preppy clothes, but they included me and treated me like an equal. I don’t recall anyone outside of our girls group ever being out-and-out mean to me, but I didn’t belong like others did.
The church site spanned a city block. I explored the maze of buildings on Wednesday nights while Dad was in choir practice after the mid-week worship service. Up and down the staircases I traveled. I rarely saw anyone on my explorations. On my journeys, I pondered my teenage cares and my link to God. I prayed in the bathrooms. I prayed in the highest balcony. And then at 9, I met my dad. It took us an hour to get home. We lived that far away.
I went back to that church site this past weekend. A reunion was held for classes that graduated between 1985 and 1990. A banquet was held, but I only took the tour of the old buildings. A different church worships at the site now. The mega church is out east at a campus they moved to in 1989. I had not been back to the old church grounds in more than 27 years.
I went in search of a connection with my dad. Despite my unpleasant memories, I also recall enjoyable things like being an angel in the Easter program and climbing up in the sky-high “singing tree” for the Christmas program. Most of all, I remember being with Dad. He sat through all my practices. He was always there for me.
He died 11 years ago this month.
I wanted to feel him near, as I do at his house. I thought I’d step into the old church and be transported through time.
Do you ever do that? Do you ever go to a place and relive the moment?
I suppose there were about 60 of us there for the tour. I didn’t see my old buddies, but I wasn’t the same girl I was in junior high. I am comfortable in a group alone. Everyone was friendly, and a few people recognized my name, but I arrived alone.
Very little structurally had changed. Even the bowling alley where my family played in a league was the same – same orange and white seating.
We gathered in the sanctuary, where Mrs. Emily Jackson told us the story of how our place became someone else’s place. And how our God’s work is still done in that place.
One of the organizers stood.
“How many of you came to know Christ here?” he said.
I raised my hand. I had been 12 when I walked the aisle and prayed for God to forgive my sins and come into my life and change it. Others raised their hands, too.
“How many of you were baptized in this baptistery?”
I had been baptized three weeks after my prayer.
A lady spoke. I couldn’t hear her because everyone was chattering about the life-changing events that had occurred in that place. She must have suggested the song, because people started singing. I knew the words.
“There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place. And I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. I felt my body relax. And I felt a unity with vaguely familiar people around me.
We divided into threes for the tour.
Our part of the tour discovered a passageway to an old part of the church that had not been touched in decades. They pushed back two sets of stacked chairs that blocked the staircase. The rest of us followed. We scurried up the stairs, past peeling paint and under ceilings with missing tiles. We flooded the rooms of our youth. We giggled and called to each other and took photographs. We acted like a bunch of kids.
I was a bit disoriented at first, and then I saw the three serving windows, their doors pulled down. It was the kitchen where my dad had served our choir hotdog and hamburger dinners.
As the others roamed the assembly area several feet away, I stood alone at the serving windows and imagined my dad standing there, smiling. He was so close and so far away.
I was delighted to find this place, but the tour had already exceeded my expectations. Even if I had not found the kitchen, I would have left satisfied because I’d encountered another Spirit in that place. I had been so focused on my father and on my loss, I’d forgotten to examine how God worked in that place, in my life, many times, years before. On the tour, God reached through my loss and painful memories and opened before me a boulevard of memories, broader than my loss.
On that boulevard, I walked with my daddy. And I walked with the God who will reunite us someday.
Where do you go to relive moments with loved ones?
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