It's the story

Since I took up building wooden canoes and kayaks, I have enjoyed reading books and articles about other boat builders. In addition to those who tackle small projects like the ones I undertake, there are builders who create huge vessels. Alongside them are those who restore old boats. I’ve visited a few places where extensive restorations of some very large boats have taken place. Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and Port Townsend in Washington are two centers of wooden boats where building and restoring have gathered skilled carpenters and boat builders.

In general the big projects fall into three categories: repair, restoration and replication. All wooden boats are in need of constant maintenance and repair. Some of the great wooden ships were designed for a service life of 5 to 25 years and now have survived for more than a century because things were replaced or repaired when they wore out. Sometimes, the need for repairs is so great that there is little of the original left when they get done with the process. Sometimes they simply make a replica of the original. All of these processes are expensive and it is amazing to me how much money they can raise to keep old boats afloat. One story I read told a bit about the restoration of the Ernestina-Morrissey. The boat has been replanted with high quality wood to standards of workmanship that exceed the original. Touring the ship one visitor commented to one of the shipwrights, “She looks like a million bucks!” The builder responded, “More like 8 million.”

The conversation among builders and restorers has to do with where the limits of such an enterprise lie. How much of the original boat needs to remain for us to call it the same ship. Sometimes it is just a single piece: part of the keel, a companion ladder, a hatch, a piece of ironwork. Everything else has been replaced bit by bit until it is questionable what of the original is left.

Michael Rutstein, writing about the historic knockabout Sylvinia W. Beal, stated “The story remains and cannot be replaced or rebuilt. It is the relationship between the parts, not the parts themselves, that make the boat.”

I have been thinking of historic ships as one analogy for historic churches. I don’t really mean the buildings, but rather the congregations. The congregation I serve is in its fourth building. In a sense it bears very little resemblance to the gathering drawn together by the missionary Rev. J.W. Pickett in the upper room of Lewis Hall in 1878. None of the founders is still alive. The building where they gathered is no longer standing. The town of Hay Camp has become Rapid City. The place with no Christian congregation of any type now has over 200 churches and para-church organizations. Those founders would marvel at the beautiful building we now occupy with its glorious musical instruments. They could never have imagined the size of our budget or the scope of our rummage sales, or the distances we cover working with our sister church in Costa Rica. They would be amazed at the technology in our building, with computers to run heating and air handling systems, shingles made out of composite materials that are fireproof and aren’t damaged by hail, giant air circulation fans and modern restrooms with amenities they never imagined in a church. They might not even understand the style of preaching or the order of worship services that have become familiar to our generation.

But we are connected to them. We are the extension of the work they began. They would understand our commitment to serving our community. They would feel at home at potluck suppers. They would be willing to chip in and work at spotting wood or preparing meals to serve at the mission. Their story has become our story just as our story will become part of the history of this place after our time has passed.

What remains of the original is the story. And the story becomes worthy of preservation for future generations.

Yesterday I had the joy of a brief conversation with a man who is just slightly younger than I who grew up in the church and then moved away as an adult. He is active in another congregation with which I am familiar and we had fun making connections and coming up with people we knew. His wife was a camper at a church camp where I was a manager and I know her whole family. We have a lot of friends in common and know a lot of the same places. He stopped in my home town on his way to Rapid City on this trip. He’s fished the river where I grew up.

Our stories intertwine in a way that is common when you are talking with folk in the church. Even though we never lived in the same town at the same time and never belonged to the same congregation at the same time, our stories are connected.

Even though we invest heavily in maintaining an institution and donate generously to keep a building well-maintained, a church isn’t about the institutional structure or the building that we occupy. A church is the story of people in relationship with God. It is a story of faith nurtured and shared. It is a story of sending our people out into the world with the good news of God’s love.

It will take a century and a half for this particular congregation to double its age. By then, none of us will be living. Our names will be forgotten by many of those who follow after us. They might have the technology to read some of our annual reports if a historian decides to do a bit of research. They might have kept a picture of the building or a computer archive of some event. But they will be the same church as we are. They will carry the legacy of Rev. Pickett and the faithful who gathered in Lewis Hall. They will carry the legacy of those who constructed a modern brick structure on the eve of a World War in 1914. They will carry the legacy of the pioneering thinkers who belt an accessible building in 1959. And they will carry the legacy of the work we have done.

The story will continue.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!