I’ll spare you any rants on theology, certainly none in the Rick Santorum mode. But — as a tad more on old churches — I can say that I did grow up in a churchy family that is something like four generations deep.
My dad, as I’ve mentioned, was a Princeton Seminary-minted Presbyterian minister, as is my brother Steve, now in Charlotte. Turns out that as students at Princeton they even shared the same dormitory, a generation apart. Go back another generation and there’s my grandfather, Harry Spurgeon DeWitt Shimp (really!) who went behind the pulpit first as a Methodist, then decided (I guess) that all things considered he’d rather be a Presbyterian, and so became one. His father was a preacher as well, and word is that his father was a man of the cloth, too! And nobody, but nobody made a dime doing it. Something about the calling that does not, apparently, entail a guarantee of impressive money.
As a bona fide “preacher’s kid,” nonetheless, I have to say that it was fun. In the first place, you always knew where you were going to be on Sunday morning. Then too, and you always had a pretty clear idea what was going to happen, who you were going to see, what — basically — they were going to say, and that Mom would drop the roast in the oven before you went to the 11:00 service, and that it would end up on the table at exactly 12:30 as we sat down for dinner — Sunday parlance for lunch.
Also a given: Mom would never critique my dad’s sermons. Never. Since I hadn’t been taking notes earlier, I was in favor of moving on to other things as well. But now and then — and this was rare — she would offer a suggestion or two on the accepted pronunciation of words. It went like this: “Maurice (those in Western Pennsylvania favored “Morris”), the next time you say the word ‘just’ as though it written G-I-S-T, I’m going to simply stand up in the pew and sit down. That’s it.” I don’t recall that ever actually happening later on; it’s likely that the old man made it a point to comply, maybe not, but I’ve forever kept the preference in mind.
From age zip to 20, a church was always at the center of things, with Dad as the head guy. Many of my closest friends were members of the church that we were a part of, on through high school. Presbyterians then — and now– were tradition bound and, well, mild. In my experience there was never anything approaching drama. We’re doing it this way this week because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Meaningful, but also comfortable. Dad never, ever made an alter call, and the expression “born again” was never heard inside the doors of one of his churches, except on the rare occasions he chose to base a sermon on Nicodemus. To this day, I can say that I find the notion decidedly scary, and frankly, misleading.
It was, for all practical purposes, typical small town stuff. Remote but easy. And very honestly, not boring. Expectations were light. Add to that a public school completely free of gangs, fights and drugs and you had a foundation that was consistent and reliable. I slept like a baby, well beyond when I actually was one.
Half a century later the memories remain gentle and pleasing. There were personal traumas, of course. On one occasion I got in the way of an airborne baseball bat, and there were a couple of guys who I found it prudent to avoid. Pushing one’s way through the formative years did have its challenges, very much like it is for any kid you’ve ever known. But walking dark streets were only fearsome for those with strong imaginations and a long trek home.
For me there was always that welcoming large white house as I rounded the corner of Main and Clinton Streets, and right beside it the white, wooden church.