Planted in the center of Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” between an imposing new bank and a row of failing strip malls, stands Zion’s United Church of Christ: a historically accurate and beloved anachronism from 1776, a time when police sirens and revving motorcycle engines didn’t interrupt church services, and no locks—let alone alarm systems—barred the sanctuary doors shut. To most Allentonians, Zion’s UCC’s fame is as anti-climactic as the rest of the city. The church is best known for harboring the stolen Liberty Bell and its captors for a night before they moved the bell to its permanent home in Philadelphia. But for my dad, it’s a place of work and worship. And for my brother, sister, and me, it was the ultimate clubhouse.
The church’s exterior is somehow appropriate among seventh street’s spray-painted buildings, caged window displays, and sidewalk trash swirling forward like urban tumbleweeds. When waiting for the service to start, I could run my fingers across the building’s exterior and watch as small chunks of gray colonial wall came apart in my hands, or peel layer after layer of paint from the heavy swinging doors leading to the alcove. Despite its steady decomposition, the outside of Zion’s gave a clear impression of severity, coldness, and orderliness–especially to the six-year-old Pastor’s kid who faced eternal damnation if her new, white stockings got a run before that Sunday’s end.
At that age, the service itself was a blur of boredom: standing and sitting, talking and singing and being quiet. After a service that lasted two hundred bajillion years, I was restless and itching to play. At forty-eight, my father was the youngest Reverend the church had ever seen, and at forty-five, my mother was its youngest member by far. With no children around, no Sunday school, and no after-service snacks except stale jam thumbprints and ginger snaps, it was up to my brother, sister, and me to entertain ourselves.
As soon as Pastor Dad blessed the congregation–“Go in peace”–the three of us tore up the aisles and went our separate ways: any way to avoid the sticky orange-lipsticked and moustached kisses of the senior women’s choir members. As The Very Reverend Stevens shook members’ hands, I crawled between pews and legs, to greet him with a, “Hi Dad! Bye Dad!” then headed down the stairs and into the museum. The cold basement stairwell echoed my clumsy feet’s clunking as I ran past the untouched gift shop into the museum. Inevitably, I would turn on the wrong switch while jumping up to reach the switchboard, and the museum would come alive. Life-size marionettes would start recounting the history of the Liberty Bell Shrine, their creaking movable parts more audible than their speeches. Their eyes followed me to the whistling miniature displays that twinkled with the joy of finally having a visitor. There, I could clang the Liberty Bell replica to ring out the news of my freedom from church, turn off the lights and switches, and grope my way to the illuminated exit sign, down the church’s addition: Fellowship hall, the kitchen, playroom, and offices.
From the museum exit, I had to crawl under the faded “Caution: Alarmed area” sign, past a mass of long-neglected folding chairs and tables in Fellowship Hall, and into the kitchen to see what kind of snacks I could find. There I would sometimes find my brother taking dribbling sips of the refrigerated communion wine, or my sister sorting through the secretary’s stash of frozen chocolate bars. Usually we’d find some leftover stale cookies or crackers from an old church function, or the last few pieces of a marble sheet cake from a fast-food style baptism, which we would gluttonously and guiltily devour. Through the kitchen exit, Joanna and I entered the playroom, leaving Bob to his libation. Jumbled among an old chalkboard, the empty toy chest, a folded baby-changing station, children’s bible books, and other Sunday school treasures circa 1974, were boxes of donation items stacked away and forgotten. Saved for the annual bazaar were items better than any playroom distractions: A small elephant figurine carved from porcelain that felt cool against your cheek, old lady hats, shoes, and purses perfect for playing dress-up, chipped and stained crockery, even an occasional mouse. After a brief runway exhibition or game of “house”, we wandered up the back staircase and into the office area of the church.
There we’d find our mother in the parlor room chatting away with parishioners, she patiently waiting for The Reverend to finish his work, they waiting for their spouses in choir to finish practice. The expansive parlor was all yellow, with a long, yellowed conference table, a yellow checkered sectional that smelled worse than the old ladies sitting on it, and the booger yellow carpet, threadbare and stained to match the curling and faded yellow wallpaper. Through the tall windows, warm afternoon light broke through the blinds, highlighting the perfect sleeping spot on the sofa with its dust-capturing beams. My sister curled up like a kitten, exposing her white-stockinged behind to the church ladies when she periodically woke to crawl back into the warmth of the moving light.
By then, choir was over, and my brother was already perched on the piano bench, alternating between “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks” while my sister and I ran around in between rows of folding chairs and music stands to reach the stage on the other side. It was difficult to twirl and jump among the Christmas and Easter decorations stored there, especially the life-size Christ statue peeping out from behind the curtains, a ewe nestled in his arms. With every pirouette, his eyes followed us from stage left to right as my brother, sister, and I yelled, sang, and played. Eventually, we’d be instructed by one parent or another to hush, providing the perfect opportunity to explain in our three separate but overlapping voices how bored we were, how hungry, how much we wanted something, anything to do. Naturally, they put us to work. First to the office–an unexpectedly bustling and businesslike place for the church–to fold bulletins, print newsletters, or run errands. But one by one, we found a way to escape, under the guise of restocking prayer request forms in the sanctuary or straightening hymnals.
Walking into the sanctuary from this direction, from the direction my father somberly walked before the service, always felt wrong. Everything was backward, distant, and unfamiliar when reversed. I remember pulling at the thick, heavy door and wondering if it too knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. As I walked into the sanctuary, the door slowly snapped behind me, suctioned shut with the same finality as a closing coffin. By then, my shoes and stockings had come off, and my feet sank into the still plush and rich red carpet, padding silently as I walked up and down the pews. Despite its size, the sanctuary was always warm and comforting, with the familiar smells of sunlit dust and pine needles. Dutifully I walked up and down every aisle, picking up and replacing stray hymnals, one hand always resting on the rounded back of the polished mahogany pews, tracing the familiar woodworked designs with my fingers. Like everything else there, the stained glass was dark, intimidating, and larger than life, covering the two longest walls from floor to ceiling. The eyes of saints and martyrs followed me and yellow, green, blue, and red hands wagged cautionary fingers discouraging further intrusion in God’s gothic house. Still, I walked toward the looming mouth of the sanctuary: the lecturn. On one side was the massive, bronze organ, polished meticulously as if to say, “Do NOT touch.” I never so much as ran my fingers across the rows of keys, fearing a mighty growl from the pipes. But by squeezing through a door behind the organ, my small body could grope through the dark insides of the giant instrument and out the other side, to the pulpit. I’d stand there, my hands leafing through the huge bible, spritzing holy water, nibbling a rusk of blessed bread as I read meaningless line after meaningless line. Still, in my six-year-old brain, I knew that something was special about this place, something I wasn’t quite getting. So with feigned somberness I dropped down on my knees to pray.
“God?” I tested, “Are you there?” And I somehow wasn’t surprised when an authoritative voice answered back, “I’m here.”
My childish secrets and fears poured out in search of God’s sympathy and guidance. God and I talked for a while, until our conversation was rudely interrupted by my sister, Joanna, who was sent on a mission to locate me. That’s when she told me that the voice I had been pouring all of my secrets and dreams into wasn’t God’s. It was the voice of my brother, Bob, hiding behind the illuminated stained glass over the lecturn.
United by boredom and anger, my sister and I raced out of the sanctuary, down the hall past the offices, up another flight of stairs marked “Do not cross” and onto the third level, where we knew Bob was already hiding from us. Just as outdated as the playroom, the upper level was the territory of the First Defenders: a kind of East coast militia group who for some unknown reason disappeared and left everything behind. From room to room we searched through camouflage uniforms, dusty parachutes, tents, and carelessly stacked and rusting bayonets, rifles, and swords. Finally, there was only one place left to look.
At the end of the hall, there’s one door, outlined by a bright, gold light. Behind the door is the stained glass image of Jesus and a few select disciples, where Bob had been playing God. By staring through the lighter glass, we could see the entire sanctuary, but no Bob. So up we climbed on the ladder, past the crown of thorns and the top of the crucifix, up the trapdoor and over the “Caution: Extremely Dangerous” sign, onto the rotting staircase leading to the bell tower. Vaguely we wondered what time it was: we didn’t want to be up there when the bells started ringing. Inch by inch we climbed, feeling our way along crumbling steps and guiding ourselves to the top of the tower, underneath the largest bell. On the other side of the bell tower we could see Bob, casually perched on the window’s edge. But before I could punish him for his divine impersonation, another deep, powerful voice resonated throughout the church. Using the microphone system to summon us back, my father’s voice boomed over the P.A. system.
Gingerly we three climbed back down the staircase and ladder as fast as we could, knowing the longer it took us to return to the office, the more suspicion would be aroused. With the promise of Sunday brunch at our favorite restaurant in exchange for good behavior, we three quickly made amends and spilled into the office: hungry, dusty, and done with another typical Sunday. As Reverend Stevens, my mother, and the three PK’s (Pastor’s Kids) walked down the side alley to the car, the bells chimed out the noontime benediction, with my father accompanying them in his mellow baritone: “Praise God to whom all blessings flow/Praise him all creatures here below/Praise him above, ye heavenly host/Praise father, son, and holy ghost.” He finished by whistling the tri-chord “Amen,” unlocking the car doors, and turning on WAEB: Oldies 1470 to listen to equally familiar tunes as we drove away from the church and toward lunch. It may not be holy for the right reasons, but for me, Zion’s UCC will always be sacred ground.