New Year’s Eve

 The sacred hush of Christmas Eve 1949 gave way the next morning to the excitement of Christmas Day. My brothers and I got up early, opened presents, and played with our new toys. If we were lucky, snow would be falling sometime soon, and the pond would have enough ice for skating. The week after Christmas was a dizzying sequence of playing with toys and seeing the neighbor kids and our cousins. We were allowed to stay up every night past our usual bedtimes to play caroms and table games and put together jigsaw puzzles. After all, it was Christmas break with no school. Even as we enjoyed these days of playing and holiday eating, our minds turned to the next great event: New Year’s Eve.

I knew about New Year’s Day, the first day of the next year, and I understood that years changed numbers on New Year’s Eve, just like my age changed on my birthday. But I’d only heard about New Year’s Eve, the actual time when one year passed away and a new one was born. I had never taken part in celebrating it, at least not at midnight, the actual turning of the year. We kids had always gone to bed too early. At age ten, the day took on a new importance. For the first time, I would be allowed to participate in a New Year’s Eve celebration.

I was thrilled when my parents announced that we would go to church at about ten o’clock at night and stay there until midnight. I began to wonder what it would look like when the New Year came. Would there be a line across the sky just as the New Year arrived so I could see the difference between the New Year and the old one? Would the new sky have a brighter color? Would the stars be bigger and brighter? Would there be a new star like the Christmas star? One thing I did know: I wanted to be outside, looking up at the sky, at the actual moment of midnight.

My parents explained that the church would have a “Watch Night Service.” Everyone would “watch and pray” as the New Year approached and then sing, stand, and kneel before God as it arrived. We often knelt to pray in church, and I felt certain we would kneel at least once during this special service. The Watch Night Service seemed awesome and holy to me, just the kind of thing that the people in Bible stories might have done. I still thought the people in our church were pretty much the same as the biblical children of Israel, especially since I thought they had brought the clock of the covenant all the way to Elmore, Ohio. But I was worried about all the singing, standing, praying, and preaching we had to get through before the New Year arrived. I wanted to be outside at the moment the New Year began. What if we were late?

The Watch Night Service began with solemn singing and Scripture reading in the sanctuary followed by a short sermon about commitment and devotion to God and the passage of time. Then the men and boys and the women and girls went to separate rooms in the basement to wash each other’s feet like Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet before he was crucified. In the two rooms, people paired up to wash each other’s feet in metal basins of water, mercifully warmed for this purpose. I was paired with an older man. While washing my feet, he talked quietly about God’s love and the humility of Jesus. The same thing was going on all around the room, and presumably in the room for women and girls. The end of the old year was like the end of a time in our lives, and we were finishing it just as Jesus had ended the time of his earthly ministry.

After footwashing, we returned to the sanctuary and sat quietly. Aunt Lucille played a slow, thoughtful hymn on the church’s new organ, and we were instructed to think about the passing of the year, the passing of our lives, and the holy importance of the year ahead. When everyone was back in the sanctuary, it was time for communion, which we called “The Lord’s Supper.” Brother Lee, our pastor, reminded everyone of the seriousness of taking communion and of the danger of taking communion unworthily. Then he began to recite the sacred lines about Jesus breaking bread and telling the disciples it represented his body.

Following the instructions about how to receive the bread and the grape juice, symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, we went row by row to kneel at the altar for communion. As we each ate a piece of bread and drank a tiny cup of juice, we were enacting something Jesus had done near the end of his life on earth. The organ was played softly again, and again we were instructed to think, this time about the shortness of life and our purpose for being here on earth.

Anxious for what was ahead, I peeked at the sacred clock on the wall. It was 11:50 p.m., only ten minutes before midnight. Now the swift passing of our lives became more urgent and more important to me. We needed to finish the service before midnight so we could actually see the New Year arrive. I watched and waited for something to happen, but people just sat there, praying silently, while the time on the clock kept moving forward. Finally, at about 11:55 p.m., Brother Lee stood and said it would be fitting for us to begin the New Year in prayer. He asked everyone to kneel in the pews so we could “pray in the New Year.”

We all knelt to pray, and my heart sank when I thought that I might not be outside when the New Year swept across the sky. We prayed and prayed, and finally Brother Lee said that the New Year had arrived. We stood, and he gave a closing prayer. Just after he said “Amen,” there was a loud boom outside. Unable to wait another second, I ran to the back of the church and out the door to see the sky. Another boom sounded, and I looked to see the line in the sky I had imagined.

The night was clear, and the stars were bright, but I couldn’t tell by looking at the sky where the New Year began and the old one left off. I had missed the actual midnight moment. I had missed seeing the line across the sky. The New Year had come when we were praying. The booms we had heard were large fireworks shot off a couple of blocks away, not the sound of the New Year crossing the sky. Other kids came out, and we listened to the noises in the night. Firecrackers were set off a few blocks away, people banged on pan lids, and a bell rang at a church on the other side of town.

Suddenly we heard blam blam! Both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun were fired one after the other only a couple of houses away. “Somebody is shooting a shotgun!” one of the kids yelled. We waited for the gun to be fired again, and for a moment the night was quiet. Then we heard something we hadn’t heard before: ping ping ping followed by a more rapid ping ping ping ping. All along the row of parked cars in front of the church the pinging sounded like a rain shower beginning, only sharper.

“It’s the bullets landing!” yelled one of the kids. “The shotgun bullets are landing!”

Just then there were more shotgun blasts. Blam! Blam! They were coming from the same yard they’d come from before. We waited, and the ping ping ping and then the more rapid ping ping ping ping ping came again.

“Yea! Yea!” we cheered and ran back into the church to tell the others. By the time everyone else was outside, the night was quiet again. There were no more shotgun blasts, so we kids could tell everyone about the shotgun bullets landing on the cars. Some of the women thought this was terrible, but some of the men said it probably wouldn’t hurt anything.

While the grown-ups finished talking, we kids listened for more sounds of the New Year, but all was quiet and still. Soon we were snuggling down in the back seats of our parents’ cars, heading home for our first sleep of the New Year.

It had been a good way to end the old year: a church service that included washing feet, having the Lord’s Supper, singing, and praying in the New Year. I didn’t see the line across the sky when the New Year came, but I heard something even better: powerful blasts from a shotgun and the clatter of pellets landing on cars. Surely it was a good start to the New Year, and 1950 would be a wonderful year of peace and happiness.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Google “1950” to see how well that last sentence worked out.

Advertisements

The Baby Gate Crisis

During Darlene’s increasingly serious medical events in October 2010, a minor crisis arose that would become a comical part of our family’s folklore. This episode is remembered affectionately within our family as “the baby gate crisis.”

Darlene’s sixty-fifth birthday on November 3 was approaching, and I was uncharacteristically planning ahead. She was pleased when I told her on October 8 that I was going to buy a flat screen, high-definition TV for her birthday. We expected the new TV to enhance our evenings of movie watching. As it turned out, I didn’t buy her a flat screen TV. Something more urgent was on her mind.

Our daughters were planning to visit on October 20, and Darlene became obsessed with concern that the two toddlers, Ben and Clara, might fall down the stairs that led to our second floor. With Darlene’s prodding and over a period of three weeks, I bought several adjustable gates, one after the other, to block access to the stairs at the top and also the bottom. The stairs could not be blocked at the top by any of the commercial safety gates I kept buying, testing, and returning, rather than shopping for and buying that flat screen TV.

I knew Darlene would not rest until the children were protected from our stairs. I promised her I would solve the problem somehow, but nothing I said calmed her worries. I was at the brink of drilling holes in the hallway wall at the top of the stairs to install some sort of crude, heavy-duty gate of my own design. It would have been about the quality of a farm gate or an industrial barrier, but it was all I could think of to do.

Matt and Kathryn were the ones who finally resolved the baby gate crisis. During their visit on the weekend of October 15, I told them of the various baby gates I had bought. I told them about my plan to drill holes in the wall and install some sort of gate at the top of the stairs. They listened earnestly, possibly suppressing feelings of alarm at our frenzy. They may even have suppressed laughter about my plan for a homemade baby gate.

Thankfully they pointed out the obvious. Our first two grandkids, Jake and Sam, had never toppled down the stairs. Ben and Clara, both a year old, would be in direct parental care at all times and would not have access to the stairs. They also said that we could even use a couple of baby gates to confine kids in upstairs bedrooms if necessary (and it never was necessary).

Darlene was persuaded by Matt and Kathryn’s calm reasoning, and the baby gate crisis was over. Apparently she trusted the advice of pediatric specialists over that of an aging, retired economist.

By the time the baby gate crisis ended, it was too late to get that flat screen TV for Darlene’s sixty-fifth birthday. Events suddenly moved too swiftly.

This is a chapter from The Summertime of Our Lives, the life story of Darlene Kardatzke. It will be available on Amazon in early 2019.

Easter in Eritrea, 1964

Easter Morning in Eritrea, 1964

Without thinking much about it, I learned a lot of church traditions, hymns, and Bible stories due to our family’s relentless church going in my childhood. I had a superficial knowledge of Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving—the only religious holidays we celebrated. Truth to be told, I was most interested in the most sensational aspects of those holidays, and I was especially grateful for the school vacations they provided. If I had heard someone say “Christian education” as a boy, I would have shuddered, tried to forget I had heard it, and hoped I would be forgiven. As it was, the rhythms of church life provided an adequate Christian education for me and other young heathens. We were gradually, inexorably absorbing our parents’ beliefs and traditions.

Christmas was so exciting and so appealing to my sensual nature when I was young that I largely mostly missed the point of Easter. I didn’t realize the magnitude of it until I was older. I did perceive the drama of the empty tomb. I could feel the thrill of being there and seeing the angel inside. I could sense, at least superficially, the newness of that morning in Jerusalem. And I could feel some of its reality in Elmore, Ohio, especially if it was a clear, sunny day in a year when Easter came late enough for warm weather. I thought it would be exciting to attend an Easter Sunrise service. I thought of sunrise literally, not figuratively, and I wanted to be in a service that began in darkness and ended in the full light of day. Never mind the misery of rising that early and being in the dark on a cold spring morning: I wanted the full treatment.

One year when I was in high school, a brave Sunday school teacher gave in to my urging and agreed to have a sunrise service with the youth very early on Easter morning. We planned to meet at the church and go to a place where we might see the sunrise. I don’t remember if we had in mind anything more spiritual than seeing the sun coming up over the horizon; our spirituality might not have exceeded that of ancient pagans, who worshipped the sun, moon, and stars.

We didn’t make it to a scenic or holy place to see the sunrise that day. Only a handful of kids showed up at church, and our teacher’s courage faded in the chill of the dark morning. Our little group disbanded, and most returned to their homes for naps. The tomb was not yet open and empty, and we had left, I thought, without the garden tomb experience I had hoped we would re-create.

Determined as I was, I drove alone to the nearest shore of Lake Erie to seek the inspiration I thought would come with an Easter sunrise. But Lake Erie was a disappointment too. By the time I arrived, the sky was as dark and gray as the lake’s water. Clouds obscured the sun, and the shrill cry of a few gulls seemed to stab my expectant heart rather than stirring it. I shivered, got back in my car, and went home for breakfast before the Easter morning service.

I’m sure the service that Sunday was holy and good. Men, women, and children were all dressed up, many in bright new clothes, to praise God and show respect for each other. Lilies lined the front of the church, and even I could tell the music was unusually powerful. We undoubtedly sang “Up from the Grave He Arose,” a song that was nearly mandatory on Easter Sunday. Possibly our little choir attempted the “Hallelujah Chorus,” as it did some years. After church, most families gathered at home for a dinner of ham, sweet potatoes, and other holiday foods. For me, Easter had come and was celebrated, but it didn’t bring the great, beautiful sunrise experience I had wanted.

I was much older, twenty-four to be exact, when I learned how Eritrean Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter. I had entered the Peace Corps immediately after graduating from college in June 1962. At age twenty-two, I was sent to Ethiopia to teach in a public school in the province of Eritrea, which was already engaged in a war of independence that would last thirty years. I was in the lovely little city of Adi Ugri in the Eritrean highlands at an altitude of about 6,500 feet. Christianity and Islam were practiced peacefully side by side there; animosity was directed outward, against the Ethiopian empire of which the Eritreans were unwilling members.

In Eritrea, Easter was the most important Christian holiday. Christmas season, in comparison, passed as barely a blip on the Christian radar. It was mainly a time when the Europeans and Americans decorated their homes, sang special songs, and exchanged gifts while the Orthodox Eritrean believers stood by tolerantly. Eritreans reserved their spiritual adoration for Easter.

Easter in Eritrea did not come upon its people suddenly one fine Sunday morning. It was preceded by a rigorous, forty-day time of fasting. Most people were very poor, yet for forty days before Easter, they ate no meat, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, nor any other product extracted from an animal, bird, fish, or reptile. The observant Christians ate a variety of vegetable and bean dishes throughout their Lenten season. No one perished from this fasting, and this in itself may be miraculous, given the near-starvation diets of so many.

The Eritrean Orthodox fast was broken at midnight on Easter morning. Streams of worshipers arrived carrying candles, a reminder of the Light that shone in the darkness, the Light the darkness could not comprehend and could not put out. Churches were packed, and many congregants stood outside in the chilly night. Inside, ancient chants proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and soon the feasting began.

At midnight on the eve of Easter 1964, I climbed to the roof of my house in Adi Ugri, Eritrea, to see the procession of candle-bearing worshipers arriving at the Orthodox church half a mile away. The time exposure picture I took that night formed my image of Easter for many years. Lights glowed through the church’s windows, and candlelight illuminated the pure white traditional Eritrean/Ethiopian robes of those approaching the church. The new day they celebrated divided the Christian future from the ancient past. That year I finally saw the Easter sunrise.

Having seen the drama of the Orthodox Easter, I appreciated Easter in America more profoundly than ever before in the years that followed. The experience helped me begin to understand that Easter, not Christmas, is the central Christian celebration. Easter became so much more than my youthful perception, limited as it was to the lilies, the new clothing, Easter eggs, and special Easter music. At last I understood the significance of the first pilgrimage to see the empty tomb, newly illuminated amid the darkness outside. I had heard of it many times, but I hadn’t really seen it until then.

The Christmas Treat

The Christmas Treat

Christmas was the most wonderful time of year to me, maybe even better than the first days of summer vacation. Our preparations for Christmas seemed like something Christians had been doing just like this for hundreds of years. Kitchens were filled with wonderful aromas of cookies for weeks. Closer to Christmas Day, the scent of pine boughs invaded most homes. And on the actual day, our heads spun with delight as a roasted turkey or a large chicken was brought to the table to be served with dressing, cranberries, potatoes, gravy, fresh bread, and enough desserts to clog our arteries well past Easter.

I loved to sing Christmas carols in church, and the congregation was especially good at harmonizing those especially familiar songs. The fact that we sang carols and heard the Christmas story every year actually added to the excitement of the season. We knew that all of our church activities and feasting were really to celebrate Jesus being born in a stable and laid in a manger, and repetition did not wear out that story. In fact, it even added to our excitement about the story.

In those days, Elmore seemed a lot like the biblical Bethlehem in my imaginings. It was a quiet town with about the same number of souls as had lived there soon after the Civil War. The people had changed, but the population was still about thirteen hundred. Seven active churches gave the town a holy feel in spite of the obvious temptations. One year a very bright star appeared over Elmore, and people said it might be the same star that had guided the wise men to the Christ child. It seemed to hover over Northern Ohio the whole Christmas season. It even seemed to be right above the church on Congress Street in Elmore. Whatever that bright star might have been that year, it made Christmas more personal, more directly from God, than ever before.

The front of the church was decorated each year with a huge hanging mural that appeared about two weeks before Christmas and disappeared shortly after New Year’s Day. The mural I remember best was a view of Bethlehem from the crest of a hill, with the town sleeping silently across a small valley. In the mural, the three wise men were on the hill, and the Christmas star was shining brilliantly above the holy stable below. The wise men were seated on their camels in their fine robes, no doubt thinking of the baby they were seeking and also of the evil King Herod whom they had met on their journey. I loved to gaze at this mural and imagine myself running down the path ahead of the wise men. I would go ahead of them to the stable to see Jesus in the manger. I could then help the wise men find the right stable, since there would have been many like it. Each year, that mural was my trip to the Holy Land, and I could imagine it just as I wanted it to be.

In most years, the Sunday morning Christmas program consisted of carols interspersed with simple poems or lines of Scripture that all of the children, except for the very youngest, recited from memory. The children helped bring people in, producing a record crowd each year, and so did the Christmas treat. The treat was one of the most blessed events of my early religious life. It combined the coming of the Christ child with manna from heaven, or possibly something even better than manna.

After all of the children’s memorized program pieces had been said and nearly all of the carols sung, the Sunday school superintendent would make a short speech, thanking everyone for the help in the year’s program. She (the superintendent was nearly always a woman) thanked the Sunday school teachers and those who had helped prepare crafts for the classes and costumes. She also thanked the parents who had faithfully brought their children. Then the chairman of the board of trustees would present a gift to the pastor. It was sometimes a memorable object, but more often it was an undisclosed amount of cash.

During those speeches, six or eight men slipped out into the overflow room at the side of the sanctuary. These men usually were farmers or factory workers who seldom took on ceremonial functions. One was Warren Draper, a sunburned farmer who had served in World War II. Another was Don Otte, a merry farmer who was active in church and always chewed gum. Junior Miller, a painfully shy younger man, performed his only public role in church by helping distribute the Christmas treat.

When all of the speeches were finished, a hush fell over the church. Suddenly the Christmas treat posse marched into the church carrying the long awaited treat. The sanctuary was flooded with the exotic, nearly intoxicating aroma of fresh oranges as the men came down the aisles, handing oranges across the rows until everyone was served. Right behind the oranges came those mouthwatering small bags of candy and nuts that kids considered the real Christmas treat. The women of the church had prepared the bags of candy and nuts in the days prior to the service, and it seemed they used the same recipe every year. Here’s what I remember being in each bag:

2 English walnuts

2 Brazil nuts

4 filberts

3 almonds in their papery shells

3 pieces of colorful ribbon candy

6 pieces of jelly-filled candy

6 pieces of hard peppermint or spearmint

1 chocolate covered marshmallow with peanuts

1 cream-filled chocolate

1 candy cane

I may have forgotten an item or two, but this list seems to me to be at least 80 percent correct. Year after year, I knew what delight awaited me, and that knowledge added to my enjoyment of the treat when it came. I loved the fact that the Christmas treat was completely predictable. To me it was a kind of liturgy. A variation in the Christmas treat would have seemed like a form of heresy or sacrilege.

At the close of service, everyone bundled up to head for home. At our house, we would have a bedtime snack and then go to bed promptly so we could get up early and open presents on Christmas morning, just as baby Jesus surely must have opened his presents on the first Christmas morning. Down the road, my cousins would open their presents on Christmas Eve, right after the Christmas program. I thought it would have been fun to get my toys that night, but I also thought that it was vaguely sacrilegious to open presents on Christmas Eve. I didn’t worry about it though, because I loved my cousins and knew that God would forgive them. After all, they were Christians too and had been to church like me, and they, too, had received the blessing of the Christmas treat.

Adults from other churches have affirmed in recent years that they remember receiving the same or a very similar Christmas treat when they were kids. Few of their churches still have the Christmas treat. The Christmas treat at the church in Elmore has changed in recent decades, and it is sometimes given out more than a week before Christmas. Pieces of candy are usually individually wrapped, and there are no Brazil nuts in their flinty shells. The modern treat is surely more sanitary than the mix of unwrapped candy and nuts that kids received in the 1940s and 1950s, and it’s probably a good treat still. But I, rooted in the past, cherish the memory of the ancient, annual Christmas treat, exactly as it used to be back then.

Stolen Fudge

Stolen Fudge

This is a story about one of the worst things I did at the Brown House. To me it’s almost like the story of the Garden of Eden when the first man and woman ate something they weren’t supposed to and got into big trouble.

This happened on Christmas Day 1942. I had turned three in October that year, so I would have been able to do what I’m about to tell you. A year earlier I couldn’t have pulled it off, and a year later we no longer lived at the Brown House. We left the Brown House in the summer of 1943, so I know this happened on Christmas Day 1942.

The day was clear, bright, and cold. A sparkling blanket of snow had snuggled in around the corn stubble in the field behind the Brown House, and the house felt especially warm and cozy. A sparkling little Christmas tree stood on a table in the living room. Sunlight poured in the south window, and food smells filled the house. It was good to be alive and three years old.

Sometime late that morning, I heard adult voices in the kitchen. Company had come! We didn’t have company often, so I ran to see who the people were and if they had any kids with them. There were no kids, so I kept playing in the living room. The big people came through the kitchen and looked into the living room. They looked all around, saw the Christmas tree and the sunlight, talked among themselves for a minute or two, and then turned back to the kitchen.

Then a strange thing happened. While the group stood looking into the kitchen, a man at the back of the group put his hands behind his back and clasped them there. The man probably was John Johnson, an old Swedish carpenter who went to our church. He had been born in Sweden, and he probably did things like clasping his hands behind his back in the Old Country, but it looked odd and ominous to me. I didn’t know about the Old Country, and I wanted to put a stop to it, so I walked over and tried to pull his hands apart. The man jumped when I touched him, and he pulled his hands away.

“Don’t hold your hands like that!” I said.

The man raised his bushy eyebrows at me, turned back toward the kitchen, and held his hands behind his back again. Frantically I pulled at his hands to stop this strange thing until one of the visiting ladies saw me and said, “Now don’t do that! Don’t touch that man!”

The commotion caught Mama’s attention. She asked what I had done, and she made me go sit on the couch. I sat on the couch a long time, maybe almost two minutes, my eyes straying around the room. I saw the pretty Christmas tree with presents and toys under it, and I noticed decorations hanging from the ceiling.

This was the year we got the metal cat that held a wooden ball between its front paws and had wheels for hind feet. We could wind the cat up by pumping its metal tail, and it chased the ball. It was also the year we got the small wind-up metal train that sat on a metal base about the size of a dinner plate. The metal base was painted to look like mountains, with a tiny tunnel for the train to go through. A wire held a little airplane above the train, and the airplane flew in circles as the train ran around and around its track.

As I sat there staring at the wrapped presents and wondering what they might be, I saw something else. What was it? A small crockery bowl sat in the sunlight on the windowsill at the far end of the room. It was only about a quart size bowl, gray on the bottom and brown on top, with a brown crockery lid. I didn’t know what was in it, but it seemed to call out to me. “Nyle!” it whispered, “come here! Look inside.”

I glanced toward the kitchen and could tell that the adults had forgotten me. Without making any noise or any sudden moves, I got up and walked smoothly to the crockery bowl. Lifting the lid, I saw brown squares full of nuts, and I smelled something wonderful. I didn’t know what it was, so I picked up a piece of it and stuck it in my mouth. It tasted so good that I wanted to wave my arms and run, but instead I walked calmly back to the couch. I bounced a little on the couch, but then I thought that might make people notice me, so I sat very still.

The taste of the soft chocolate and walnuts flooded my mouth. I swirled the first piece in my mouth as it melted, and I looked steadily at the candy bowl across the room. It was still calling me: “Nyle! Come back!”

My senses were overwhelmed by that wonderful flavor. I lost all feeling of my conscience, which usually warned me when I did something that could get me in trouble. Right then I didn’t even care about the difference between right and wrong. I didn’t feel guilty about what I’d done. I just didn’t want to get caught.

Another glance at the kitchen door and another calm walk to the fudge bowl, and I was back on the couch, sucking and chewing the wonderful fudge. Again and again I went to the window and took another piece of fudge each time.

I don’t know how many trips I made to the fudge bowl, but I never was caught. Finally I had eaten so much fudge that I thought I might get a stomach ache or be sick and throw up in front of everybody, so I decided to stop. I sat quietly on the couch, innocently swinging my legs. When Mama came back into the living room, she found me sitting there quietly and obediently, as she had told me to do.

“Well! It looks like you are being especially good now! How about coming in to the kitchen for some dinner?”

For the first time that day, I felt a little guilty, but I soon got over it.

I followed Mama to the kitchen to have some Christmas food, but the fudge had already satisfied my hunger. We probably had roasted chicken and mashed potatoes and many other good things to eat, but that wonderful fudge and the thrill of having more than my share was all I could think about. It was like the Bible story I’d heard in Sunday school about Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

The Brown House was like the Garden of Eden to me. That’s where I first knew about life, and it was the first place I sinned. Also, like the Garden of Eden, the Brown House was a beautiful place where I can’t go again.

“I’ll Fly Away”

In our church calendar, June meant it was time for Camp Meeting. Other churches observed Lent and Epiphany as well as Christmas and Easter, as we did, but we also had Camp Meeting.

Camp Meeting got its name from large religious gatherings in the late 1800s. Christians would meet in open fields or fairgrounds, where they put up a large tent for their main meetings and smaller tents for the attendees. Camp meetings were held in most parts of the country, and most would go on for a week or two. Some of them attracted thousands of worshippers, seekers, and the curious. Camp meetings were one of the characteristics of the revivalist tradition in America, in which believers periodically sought renewed religious purity. Revival meetings in the home church were reinforced by camp meetings that might have regional, state-wide, or national audiences. For the Church of God movement, Camp Meeting was as essential as the major Christian holidays. People from the Elmore Church of God went to Camp Meeting in the then largely manufacturing town of Anderson, Indiana.

During Camp Meeting in 1948, when I was only eight years old, I decided I wanted to go to the Early Morning Prayer Meeting. I had heard of it, and it appealed to my desire for adventure and for something sensational. “Early morning” was not hyperbole: the prayer meeting started at 6 a.m. That year my family was staying at Uncle Carl’s house several blocks from the campground. He was a professor at Anderson College, and he would be going to work in his office early to prepare for his summer school classes. Everyone else was still sleeping when Uncle Carl quietly asked if I still wanted to go. The prayer meeting still sounded exciting to me, so I quickly dressed and went along.

The Early Morning Prayer Meeting was held in what was then the Anderson College gym, an oval relic of the early twentieth century that resembled a miniature version of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The gym had been built in about 1905 of large concrete blocks that the founders of the Church of God movement had made on that site. It was originally a tabernacle, but when the college was formed in 1917, it was converted to a combined gym and auditorium, what some would call a “gymnatorium” or an “auduasium.” Several rows of bleachers rose on the far wall opposite the stage, and a low wall separated the bleachers from the gym floor. During the school year, the Anderson College basketball team competed on that same undersize floor.

The prayer meeting was in full swing when we arrived at about 6:30 a.m. Although the event was called a prayer meeting, and people did pray there, it was better known for the singing. As we walked to the gym, Uncle Carl and I could hear singing across the campground, and many people were standing outside the crowded gym. Inside, the gym floor was packed with people in folding chairs, and the bleachers were filled. When we came near one of the entrances, Uncle Carl stopped and asked, “Do you want to go in?”

I looked at the crowd inside and heard the singing. “Yes,” I murmured.

Just then an old woman walked up and stared silently at us. She had no nose. All of the flesh where her nose should have been seemed to have dissolved, and we could see the air passages in the middle of her face. She was probably hoping to find divine healing at Camp Meeting, one of the reasons people came. Uncle Carl didn’t speak to her. Instead, he took me by the arm and guided me inside. When we were away from the woman, he said in a low voice, “Probably has cancer.”

We listened as the singing ended and someone up front praised the good singing and asked everyone to sit down for prayer. The prayer was dramatic, as if soaring to heaven itself. Many across the crowd joined in with amens as the leader prayed, and some prayed out loud, filling the gym with a worshipful hum. After prayer, someone started an announcement that took on a momentous and dramatic tone. A feeling of excitement went through the crowd. I couldn’t hear all that was said, but I heard “Sister Cotton” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Everyone stood, and people talked and laughed as the music began. Then everyone began to sing.

Some glad morning,

When this life is o’er,

I’ll fly away!

To a home on God’s celestial shore,

I’ll fly away!

Far away, in the middle of the gym, people cleared an aisle. Uncle Carl lifted me up to see, and when the song reached the line, “I’ll fly away,” I could see a small, African American woman running and leaping in the aisle. When she leaped, the crowd roared and clapped and sang louder. Her pure white clothing gave her an almost angelic look. Again and again, she ran up and down the aisle, leaping as the song went on.

When the shadows of this life have grown,

I’ll fly away,

Like a bird from prison bars has flown,

I’ll fly away!

 

I’ll fly away, oh glory,

I’ll fly away in the morning,

When I die, hallelujah by and by,

I’ll fly away!

At the last verse and chorus, there was so much shouting and singing that it was hard to hear the words:

Just a few more weary days and then,

I’ll fly away!

To a land where joys will never end,

I’ll fly away!

I’ll fly away, oh glory,

I’ll fly away in the morning,

When I die, hallelujah by and by,

I’ll fly away!

That final chorus was like a song of triumph, and the woman dancing in the aisle, Sister Cotton, seemed to take off flying, not just running and jumping. The gym was still echoing the closing lines as the leader said, “Thank you, Sister Cotton, for leading us again in that wonderful song! We all look forward to the day when we will fly away to meet our Lord in the sky!”

Just then, across the gym, a young African American man in a suit and tie stood up on top of the six-foot high wall that divided the bleachers from the gym floor. The top of the wall was a plank only six inches wide. The man began shouting and doing jumping jacks right on top of the wall, swinging his arms overhead as he leaped and spread his legs. A hush came over the crowd and all eyes were on him. He kept doing jumping jacks as he shouted, “You have to be a real man to do this for Jesus!”

Everyone clapped and some people shouted. Some prayed for his safety. He finally stopped and sat down, and the service resumed. It was the most dramatic testimony I had yet seen in my short life, and I wondered if I would ever do anything that dangerous, even for Jesus.

That morning was the first time I heard “I’ll Fly Away.” I didn’t hear it again for many years, but it later became a popular church song and is now sometimes sung at especially joyful Christian funerals. Every time I hear it, I remember that glowing, sultry morning and the woman with cancer and the man risking injury doing jumping jacks for Jesus. And I remember Sister Cotton running and jumping.

I saw Sister Cotton a few more times at Camp Meeting in other years, and she always wore a white cotton dress. Several years later African-American ladies were overheard talking about her. “Is Sister Cotton here this year?” one of them asked.

“No, she won’t be here. She’s with the Lord,” another explained. “Last year, she just flew away! All she left behind was a little pile of white clothes!”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Anderson, Indiana, is headquarters of “the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana” movement. Since other denominations and movements call themselves simply Church of God, it became important to distinguish our movement from other groups with this name. The name also distinguishes our movement from the universal Church of God, a term that encompasses all forms of the Christian faith.

In the 1940s, twenty thousand people attended the Anderson Camp Meeting in some years. In 1955, a headline in the Anderson newspaper estimated that 25,000 people were there. If that number were an exaggeration, it would have been thought to be for the good of the community as well as for Camp Meeting itself. By that year, the name “Anderson Camp Meeting” had been changed to the “National Convention of the Church of God,” to the chagrin of many older folks. Some continued to use the traditional name, and a few relatively young people today continue to call it “Camp Meeting,” perhaps because of its colorful past.

For forty-three years, the main worship services during Camp Meeting were held in a huge wooden tabernacle in the center of the campground on the campus of Anderson College, now Anderson University, established by the movement in 1917. Other meetings were held in smaller buildings and tents nearby. When the wooden tabernacle collapsed under heavy snow in 1961, it was replaced by a concrete dome that also served for forty-three years.

The song “I’ll Fly Away” was written in 1929 by Albert Brumley. It first appeared in print in 1932 by the Hartford Music Company.

 

The Death of Sunday Night Church

The Death of Sunday Night Church

August 14, 2016

Sunday night church was the most evangelistic of our weekly services at the Elmore Church of God in the 1950s. The hymns on Sunday night were more personal and convicting than those on Sunday morning. They spoke of sin, death, and man’s willfulness. The sermon on Sunday evening pointed directly to the altar, and there was a heartrending altar call at the end of each service. I myself was under conviction during several Sunday night services, fearing death as an unsaved sinner, possibly in a fiery crash on a curve beside the Portage River on the three-mile trip home from church. The darkness outside underscored the darkness of the world, and we could feel the need for protection against both.

The need for our sheltering sanctuary was brought home to us one dark and stormy Sunday night when our pastor issued an alarming prophecy. His voice rose in a nearly falsetto tremolo and he prophesied: “The day is coming when the doors of churches will be closed on Sunday night all over America! The doors will be locked, and the churches will be dark and cold. Many churches are dark already on Wednesday nights! How long will churches have services on Sunday night? I’m telling you, my friends, that dark time is drawing near.”

This was electrifying news to me. This was 1951, I was eleven years old, and I could envision the threat. Communists had raged across China, and their atheistic dogma was already bringing a living death on the Soviet Union. Hitler’s totalitarian fantasy was a fresh memory, and it might return. Could America be next? Hearing the preacher’s prophecy, I imagined a decree coming from some future tyrant, ordering that churches be locked up on Sunday nights. Wednesday night prayer meetings might be outlawed sooner. A cold, dark, and frightening image of the future came to my mind’s eye. I pictured our little congregation as a light in the coming darkness. We seemed to be heroic, meeting on Sunday night, even when the lights would soon be going out in churches all over America.

As a young, barely Christian boy, the thought of closing the church on Sunday night was both chilling and liberating. Canceling Sunday night church would be an offense against God, I thought, but wouldn’t I then have more time to play? Couldn’t I then do my homework on Sunday night, rather than on Saturday or on Sunday afternoon? I must have been hearing the enchanting voice of Satan, pointing out my gain in the face of the church’s loss.

Indeed, Sunday night church was often a challenge even for kids. If we were lucky, we would have played hard all afternoon, worked ourselves into a lather, and would require at least a change of shirts before leaving the house. For our parents it was an even greater challenge. They had to corral all their children, provide a stopgap supper, and herd them into the car. Parents’ chores could be especially hard in summertime when the sun hung temptingly in the sky until after time for church. In winter, the cold weather tried to intimidate the faithful, and cheery electric lights pleaded with them to stay at home and read, pop popcorn, or play table games. And these temptations were mild compared to the onslaught of television that would soon come with full force, later reinforced by Christian cable TV and even later by online church services. Sunday night church faced an array of Philistine armies.

Note: It came to pass, not suddenly but eventually, that Sunday night church was abandoned in at the Elmore Church of God and at similar churches across the land. The preacher’s prophecy in 1951 was fulfilled, but not in the way I expected. No dictator or legislature has ordered that churches be closed on Sunday evenings. Sunday night services in Elmore ceased while my back was turned sometime between 1957 and 1987. By then I barely noticed the absence of Sunday night church because the churches I attended during that time either had abandoned it or had never had Sunday evening services.

In fact, some churches remain open on Sunday evening, and as recently as 2014 there was a lively online discussion of Sunday night church instigated by Thom S. Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources. Mr. Rainer lists reasons that might explain why churches ever had Sunday evening services, as well as reasons they have been so widely abandoned. He offered no conclusive explanation for why some churches still have Sunday night services, but he offered several forces that have contributed to their decline. This discussion is available at this link

 

http://thomrainer.com/2014/05/whatever-happened-sunday-evening-services/