Roadside Remembrances

by Owen Youngman

Every travelling family tends to travel in its own way.

Perhaps there are fewer differences in the era of the back-seat, VCR-outfitted television and the backlit, full-color GameBoy then in the past. Though the contemporary, properly equipped travelling family may never resort to license-plate bingo or cow-counting or indiscriminate chorus-singing in order to maintain order or create interest in a wider world, we did.

Through occasional, but with Tolstoyan particularity, I have observed that the individuality of travelling families includes paying attention to certain kinds of things. Those clans whose members include students of junior-high age note the size of junior high schools; those including runners remark upon the form, good or ill, of sidewalk joggers; those composed of news hounds brake for The New York Times honor boxes.

In our family, we noticed churches.

The trip could be five miles or 50 or 500. Sometimes we would get off the highway in order to identify the affiliation of an interesting and/or heretofore unnoticed structure that appeared to be a house of worship. Once we investigated the structure, established its identity, and committed it to memory, we could all recognize it thereafter, even if the signage was small or poorly placed to be easily read from the road.

As a variation on this theme, we sought out the Covenant church in a town we had never before visited. We did this without benefit of either a road map or an advance phone call. Ideally these voyages of discovery ended with a congenial visit with the pastor, pleased by the chance for some shoptalk with my Covenant preacher dad. If only we had had access to a book like Swedish-American Landmarks, by Alan H. Winquist, Swedish Council of America, 1995, which includes a generous helping of Covenant churches among said landmarks. This book is well worth the $25-or-so it costs to order it from the Hemslöjd in Lindsborg, Kansas or from amazon.com, where its current sales ranking is 874,390.

And oh, if an interesting-looking building turned out to be the Covenant church!

Childhood habits are hard to break. Even today, it is the churches I notice when visiting a new location and the churches I seek out when selecting which landmarks to fit in while exploring. In fact, it’s true even in old locations; one of my favorite Christmas gifts last year was a book of photographs of churches around Chicago.

And oh, if a landmark turns out to be a Covenant church!

The lure of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s are by no means restricted to preachers’ kids, I freely admit. The California missions of Father Serra, the adobe churches of the American Southwest, the ruined missions of San Antonio, the remarkable National Cathedral in Washington, and the austere and imposing Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York are all on the maps and lists of "attractions" waiting to be checked out or checked off by tourists and pilgrims alike.

What engages me about all these churches, visited or unvisited, is the faith they represent: as conveyed in simplicity or grandeur, as communicated through artistic genius or stolid, solid craftsmanship, they tell of gatherings of God’s people—first to build, then to worship.

How many of them were begun by people who knew they were building for future generations, not their own? How many were raised by people who knew they were memorializing the struggles of past generations, not their own?

We made a brief trip to Sweden last year—staying, as many Covenanters do, in Hotel Birger Jarl. It is owned by, operated by, and co-located with Immanuelskyrkan, downtown Stockholm’s Covenant church which is one of the largest in Svenska Missionsförbundet [The Covenant Church of Sweden]. We, of course, went in and found it just as we had expected from our previous cyber visit to the church’s wonderful Web site http://www.immanuel.se which is definitely worth a bookmark.

The church we didn’t expect, however, and the one that left the lasting impression, was elsewhere in town, located not on a busy street corner but in a clearing in a park, an open-air museum known as Skansen. It was a rainy, late September afternoon, and the park was quiet. Tourist season was all but over and many of the buildings on the site were closed, their Colonial Williamsburg/Sturbridge Village-like guides in period garb had gone home for the winter.

The map we picked up at the entrance explained how the buildings had been moved to the site from various places in Sweden beginning in the late 19th Century by a fellow named Artur Hazelius who was seeking to preserve something of the country’s rural past. It explained what most of these buildings were. Not too surprisingly, one of them was a conventional-looking church which was still open.

Another was labeled "Missionshuset." It was smaller and out of the way and it was closed. A quick cross-check of the park’s guidebook showed that it was a Mission Friends’ meeting house.

That old-time travellin’ feelin’ of Covenant discovery set in; a view of the exterior was not going to be enough. We had to go inside, even though there’d be no preacher with whom to visit. So after a brief negotiation, and while we waited for someone with a key, we read the legend on a sign outside the front door:

The meeting-house was erected in 1898 by the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden parish at Svenshult in the province of Ostergötland.

It consists of the main hall, with a little gallery, and a small kitchen which during some periods was lived in by a married couple, rent-free on the condition that they acted as caretakers. It contains benches, a dais with a lectern, an organ, and a heating-stove. It is lit by paraffin lamps hanging from the ceiling….

The first half of the 19th Century saw the emergence of the Free Church movement, which wanted to create congregations that were free of the State in doctrine, worship, and finances. With the 1726 Conventicle Act, a royal statute forbidding people to gather together outside the State Church for the purpose of prayer and religious worship, repealed in 1858, the Free Church movement got a new lease on life, there being an intensive building of chapels all over Sweden between 1860-1900.

Rustic though the red-painted exterior might be, the whitewashed lectern and communion table fairly gleamed, even in the dim light of an autumn afternoon. Their prominence powerfully communicated their importance in worship, worship now clearly and freely in the open. So did the Bible verse about the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood, painted on the facing of the small balcony at the sanctuary’s rear—a balcony not unlike those in some of the older, "tabernacle-style," Covenant churches I had seen on childhood journeys.

It was a powerful and moving moment, all the more so for having been unexpected. But then again, should it have been?

"The Covenant," it says on our bulletin folder back here in Illinois, "has often been described as a family of faith." Yes, and every travelling family tends to travel in its own way.

Owen Youngman is a professor of digital media strategy at Northwestern University and is a member of Libertyville Covenant Church in Illinois.

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