The sacred space behind those white clapboards

When, years ago, my wife and I bought a yellow Victorian beside a white clapboard church here in Lincoln, Vermont, we figured we’d wander in most Easters and Christmas Eves. Maybe we’d pop in occasionally on other Sunday mornings when, for whatever the reason, we were uncharacteristically inspired. . .or we’d decided not to sleep until noon.

But then two things happened. On our first Sunday in town, the two of us were sitting contentedly on our front porch reading the Sunday edition of this newspaper when church ended. An elderly gentleman emerged from the sanctuary and wandered over to say hello. His name was Fletcher Brown and we chatted for about ten minutes. As he was leaving, he motioned at the forty or so yards that separated our porch from the church and observed with a wry smile, “Ain’t no excuse not to go to church now, is there?”

There wasn’t, so the next week we did. We went mostly out of guilt. We took a pew behind Ken and Clara Hallock, the retired couple who my wife had told me had brought us a Christmas cactus while I’d been working in Burlington. After the benediction, Ken turned around, took my hand, and shook it vigorously. “God loves you, and so do I!” he exclaimed.

I was still a pretty jaded young pup back then. I believe I responded, “Thank you.” But inside I was honestly touched by how readily and genuinely he and his God had welcomed me into the church. My wife was, too.

So we went again. And again. We’ve been going ever since.

And helping us along the path from cynics to believers was the pastor, David Wood, who has become a great friend.

This year that church building is celebrating its 150th year and today we are commemorating its century and a half here in Lincoln. One hundred and fifty years is not especially long for a church building – not even for one here in New England. (In the Middle East and Europe, there are mosques and synagogues and churches that view a century and a half as positively prepubescent.)

But the building has crammed a lot of history into its brief time here on earth, its most notable accomplishment being the reality that once upon a time it sat a half-mile from where it resides now in the center of town. In 1981 a different church sat there. On the night of Good Friday that year, a gas leak sparked an inferno that destroyed just about all of that building. The next morning, the principal artifact left in the ashes was the steel weathervane that had sat atop the steeple. Wood was in his late twenties then and had been preaching in that pulpit barely two years.

The congregation, a fraction of the size it is now, felt it was profoundly important to have their church anchoring the center of the village. Consequently, they moved the dormant church that existed a half-mile away to the center of town – a Herculean accomplishment financially and logistically, but one that energized the community and the parishioners. When I asked Wood his feelings about this building, the only church I’ve ever known here, he smiled and said, “It can’t not be special to you when you helped roll it on to the foundation. It can’t not be special when you helped paint the ceiling.”

Among Wood’s favorite moments in this church? That August Sunday in 1982, when 300 people packed into the sanctuary for the first service inside the building in its new location; a December Sunday in 1983, the first season they decorated the church for Christmas; and any of the spring or summer days when he has witnessed forty or fifty children running around the church and the grounds as part of Vacation Bible School. Wood estimates that he has held roughly 100 newborn babies from the front of that church and conducted well over 200 weddings. He’s also shepherded his congregation through 300 funerals. There is, for Wood, “a sacredness to the space. It leads me to God, often through the hallowed memory of the folks who have been a part of it all.”

I’ve no idea if I’ll live as long as Ken Hallock or Fletcher Brown. But when I look at the exterior of that sacred space from my porch, it seems to me that it wouldn’t be a bad legacy if someday I’ve told a young buck a third my age that he’s welcome in the church, too – and somehow convinced him to stay.

Happy birthday to the United Church of Lincoln.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 4, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published last month.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.