On Finding, and Losing, a Church

On my last Sunday living in New York, it was a hymn that made me cry.

I was leaving the city after almost nine years because I had fallen in love with a college professor in New Hampshire, and we were going to get married. The wedding would take place the following weekend, and all the details were set: the vows, the rings, the readings, and the hymn we would sing with our friends and family gathered around us. Written by Folliott Sandford Pierpoint in 1864, it begins:

For the beauty of the earth

For the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth

Over and around us lies;

Lord of all, to thee we raise,

This our hymn of grateful praise.

About four years earlier, I had read a story in the local paper about a pastor’s attempts to care for the disruptive homeless men who had camped out on his church’s front stoop for months, playing loud music and urinating in public. That led me to the pastor’s blog, where he wrote sensitively about balancing the call to minister to the men with his responsibilities to his community. “They cause me a great deal of trouble, and lots of anger from our neighbors, and I do wish they would go away,” he wrote, “but, whatever else, they remain human beings, images of God, and they need to be treated with respect” (oldfirst.blogspot.com/2007/10/homeless-men-at-oldfirst.html). He knew their names.

Old First Reformed Church was within walking distance of my apartment, so the next Sunday morning I stopped in. And there it was: my church. A cavernous nineteenth-century sanctuary, crumbling at the edges and crowned by a magnificent golden chandelier. Stained glass, the Ten Commandments, and a larger-thanlife painting of the empty tomb. Families and twentysomethings and elderly people–not nearly enough to fill the sanctuary, which was built for a different Brooklyn, but enough to sing hymns accompanied by a real organ. The Apostles’ Creed, Communion, prayer, and warm, wise preaching from the pastor who had written the blog post, Daniel Meeter.

Over the next few years, Old First moved from simply feeling like my proper church home to actually becoming it. I participated in a few small groups, including a yearlong weekly Bible study. I became a member. (I can still remember the smell of the smudge of oil on my forehead.) I made friends, held babies, brought snacks for coffee hour, and read scripture during the service. Once I showed up on a Saturday afternoon to help polish that great golden chandelier, lowered to the floor like a huge ecclesiastical octopus on a tiled ocean floor. I couldn’t believe I was allowed to touch it.

And then, suddenly, it was my last Sunday in New York before getting married and moving to New Hampshire, a state where there’s not only no Old First Reformed Church, but no Reformed Church in America churches at all (according to the “church search” function on the RCA website). That morning, Daniel announced a special musical guest: a children’s choir, visiting from Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were going to sing a John Rutter arrangement of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

I don’t believe in signs or that God is interested in arranging a church’s musical schedule just to pluck my heart strings. It was a coincidence, just like it was a coincidence that I happened across the newspaper article about Daniel and the homeless men on the church steps.

But random events can still feel meaningful. So I sat in my pew and listened to the very words I’d sing the following weekend at my wedding in Iowa, sung in Brooklyn by a children’s choir from Michigan in an arrangement I’d loved as a child in Illinois. I thought about Old First and how grateful I was to have found it, and how sad I was to be leaving, even though I was leaving for the happiest of reasons. I cried, and then I gathered with my church family in the back of the sanctuary for cookies and coffee. A few months later, plaster would begin falling from the 120-year-old ceiling of the sanctuary, damaging the chandelier.

I have a new life now in a new state. I live in a house on a gravel road, not an apartment on Seventh Avenue. I live with my husband, not alone, and I can go hiking by stepping out my back door. The view out my living room window is birch trees and sky and a hill that’s not quite a mountain, but close. At the birdfeeder, there are goldfinches, nuthatches, redpolls, juncos, and chickadees. For the beauty of the earth. And I still think about Old First every Sunday morning. Lord of all, to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire. She is a contributing writer to the Boston Globe’s Ideas section.