News of the impending end came via my brother. Although talk about the demise of Faith United Methodist Church had been circulating for months following the coronavirus, it still felt like a gut punch. After 96 years, the little church at the intersection of Ewing Avenue and High Street in South Bend is going to permanently close its doors.
My family didn’t attend church regularly when I was young. Ordinarily, we went to a Christmas Eve service at a church we had no connection to. In addition, I did attend Vacation Bible School at the Donmoyer Church of Christ several summers.
I don’t remember my first visit to Faith Church, but it probably happened when I was around 10 years old. It may have been a Christmas Eve service, since my mom favored United Methodist churches. My parents’ marriage was faltering. I think they may have turned to church in a last ditch effort to save their union. My dad liked sitting back in the small balcony at Faith and belting out the hymns. John Wesley would have approved.
When my parents did divorce, I was 11 years old. My dad was the only driver in the family so he got the car. My mom got custody of my brother and me. If we needed to go somewhere, we walked, took the bus, rode bikes, or relied on friends for rides. We lived more than a mile from Faith Church, but the church van picked us up first so my brother and I could assist older congregants in and out of the van. That was how we “paid” our fare.
Soon I was in a confirmation class held in the balcony of the sanctuary. It was fun being with kids my age who were still unguarded about their feelings and were willing to talk about how faith might help us cope with and understand life’s good and bad times.
Faith held a Jonah Fish Fry every year in October and packed the crowds into the small basement Fellowship Hall and put overflow diners into the Sunday school classes. It was a whole church effort with men cooking fish out back in the alley (rain or shine) and the women serving and cleaning up the dining room and kitchen. Every year, it took weeks for the smell of fish to dissipate in the building.
When I was in junior high school, I joined the youth group. This more than any other experience in my youth affected my life in a positive way. Sure, we did lots of fun activities together, like miniature golfing, bowling, going to movies and to the beach, and visiting the root beer stand on Logan Street. But we also were charged with doing service for others. We cleaned and did yard work at congregants’ homes. We held paper drives and donated the money to charity.
The fun activities sponsored by the church youth group were my social life. Without a car in our family, I was pretty much constrained on where I could go for fun with my peers. Trips to Lake Michigan and to Kelly’s Sports Land in Niles, Michigan were a real treat for me.
In July of 1981, I took part in a church-sponsored trip to the Great Smoky Mountains led by an adult in our congregation. It was one of the most memorable trips in my life. I’ll never forget sleeping in bear shelters, having to string our food on clotheslines with tin can lids on each end to dissuade the mice from pilfering it, and learning that Pop Tarts were not a great backpacking food. I also remember hearing news of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana on the Paul Harvey show on the church van’s radio. And you haven’t lived until you’ve dug and used your own pit toilet.
When I was in high school, the church hired me as a part-time custodian. Since the church was right down the street from Riley High School, it was easy for me to walk over after school to tidy up the building and sanctuary and I could easily walk the mile from my home on Saturdays. It was my first “real” job, since babysitting, mowing lawns and shoveling snow were very hit and miss money-making opportunities.
Back then, there was a full-time custodian and one other part-time student custodian. In retrospect, that seems like a lot of custodians for a small church. I think somebody at Faith was looking out for me. But I did a lot of hard work during my time on the church staff. I stripped and refinished the Fellowship Hall floor numerous times. Once, somebody got into the church and egged the men’s bathroom. That smell lasted longer than the fish fry odor. I painted all the sanctuary window frames one summer.
I learned a lot by observing the people at church. Congregants modeled servant hearts. If something needed to be repaired, most of the time there was a member who could and would fix it. People cooked meals and visited shut-ins. These people were showing me what it meant to be faithful beyond being religious.
When I left for college, I’m ashamed to say, I quickly became unchurched. It took me years, not until I got married and became a parent, before I would again start attending church regularly. But I didn’t go back to Faith, even though my mom still went there and my brother also returned after moving back from Chicago. I still visited Faith occasionally for special events like my nephew’s Eagle Scout celebration. I heard from my mom when long-time members passed away. I knew attendance was dwindling before the coronavirus struck. After church opened again, my mom would tell me attendance was typically only in the twenties to thirties. The building is in need of major repairs and the congregation is unable to afford to do them.
It is no secret that church attendance in the United States is in steep decline. The reasons are many and complex, and I won’t attempt to analyze them in this remembrance of Faith United Methodist Church. I can only say that Faith had a powerful and positive impact on my life. I am forever grateful to the staff and members for helping to “raise” and to love the imperfect me for who I was.
The congregation of Faith United Methodist Church will worship together for the last time on August 28, 2022.