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Churches and the Main Line and Community

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, most noted for its enormous shopping center. It was a bellwether of the town, which boomed in the heyday of the American mall phenomenon, and withered slowly as the luster went off on huge shopping Meccas. Our immediate neighboring townships, Valley Forge and the Main Line, which extended like a long vein of blue-blood from the national park to Philadelphia itself, weathered the rise and fall of the economy far more gracefully. Unsaddled with vast swathes of concrete boxes, and instead graced with gray stone and brick houses, rolling parks, ancient trees and a sense that they had withstood the vagaries of American fortune with as much grace as was possible anywhere in the North East.

My grandparents were very active members in a church that directly abutted Valley Forge national park; a spare white Presbyterian edifice that sits in the middle of a graveyard where rest people from before the signing of the Constitution, to as recently as my mother. The church is one of the oldest in the state, indeed in the nation, and has resisted nearly all hints at modernity, except to eventually include a closed-circuit camera so the oldest congregants could watch Sunday services in the small chapel on the ground floor. This was far cheaper than installing an elevator, and provided a place to stuff adolescent me, even then obsessed with technology, cameras, gadgets, you name it. Up in the balcony I would go, and when I weighed enough to move its enormous mass, I was also tasked with ringing the bell to call people to service. I was perfectly content alone up in the balcony, because I could sneak in a book to read during the dry sermons. Even then I was skeptical about church and its lessons from a deeply suspicious primary source; but I understood and valued the community that made up the church. Indeed, that community was nearly the whole of my grandparent's social lives, in as much as they could be said to have one, and our annual calendar revolved around this picnic, that oyster dinner, or one of several church bazaars and rummage sales.

Part of this calendar, too, was the visiting of nearby churches with which ours had a collegial relationship. Presbyterians of the old school sort, which is to say not the evangelical sort, not the modern infestation that appears to most advocate for keeping the wealthy wealthy, and excusing shabby treatment of the poor - are not jealous of each other, and rather than totaling up congregations, or looking for members that were influential in Society, generally went about the business of being nice to each other and supporting each others' increasingly narrowing attempts to stay relevant in their members' lives. I have a particular memory of visiting a vast gray-stone church on the Main Line for their annual festival and rummage sale. There is a very exact smell which the community rooms of every church shares, and it is a combination of dust, old ladies' perfumes, ancient books, moldering upholstery and the coffee and tea which is endlessly brewed in the cafeteria-style kitchens they inevitably have. This church we visited, and I can not for the life of me remember its name, or where exactly it was, only that it was on a long road in a tony neighborhood with very tall oak trees, and green and steep verges, rather than sidewalks; this church made a special effort to make their annual bazaar worth the visiting. There was, of course, the inevitable crock-pots full of meatballs, rice-krispie marshmallow squares, and other Presbyterian culinary delights that were neither culinary nor delights; but most importantly to my sisters and I, there was a huge box-maze that occupied the entire back half of the community building.

This was a paradise for kids at a church event. It was quite elaborate, consisting of many refrigerator boxes, big pieces of cardboard and even some lumber here and there where the chambers actually went up and down in multiple levels. I can only imagine now, as an adult, that they must have stored much of the cardboard for use year after year, because to acquire that many boxes annually would be unthinkable. Strange to think there was some room somewhere, and probably a large one, full of collapsed cardboard boxes and otherwise unused, dedicated to one weekend a year. But the result was a joy; it was too small for any adult to comfortably enter, and so kids would generally disappear into it not to be seen again for hours. There was chamber after chamber, box after box - loops that doubled back, large open spaces in the middle, and levels upon levels for climbing up, or dangling down from like an ersatz murder-hole in a cardboard castle. It must have taken days to put it all together, and a team of engineers to design. It was a marvel of temporary architecture.

I can't think today of anything that occupies that sort of space in my community. I'm now older than my mother was when she was taking my sisters and I to these events, and other than something crass (and germ-ridden) like Chuck E. Cheese, I don't know of a place where kids are left to benign neglect like we were there. 

I may have left the church - I have definitely left the church; but that sense of belonging to something good and kind and innocent was important to who I am today. I hope I'm simply unaware of its modern equivalent, and that those churches are not now relegated to the same tatty faded glory that the once magnificent mall now occupies.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
blanchemains
Apr. 18th, 2012 02:53 am (UTC)
There is this place at the Santa Anita mall called Jump n' Jammin'. (And can I just mention here how much I dislike it when products drop the g at the end of words? Is it supposed to signify FUN(!)? I don't know- but it bugs me.) Anyway, this place actually IS fun- a giant indoor playground/maze with air cannons that shoot foam balls. What's brilliant about it is this: you pay per child, but adults are free. Because they want parents to go in and play with their kids. That's right- it's all sized for adults, too.

So. Fun.

I wonder if the people who built that place played in your box maze as kids.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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