And when the church disappears, what will remain?

Seventy years ago, Peoria, Oregon, was a quiet village in the Willamette Valley, on River Road a few miles south of Corvallis.

Three public institutions served the people in this little place: a general store, a public school with 21 pupils and one teacher in grades one through eight, and a protestant church.

During the year that my family lived nearby, I attended the fourth grade, memorizing poems by Longfellow as I walked back and forth. I walked to the store to buy groceries my mother needed for supper, with a quarter buying bread, milk, and hamburger for our family of five. On Sundays I attended Sunday School at the little Christian Church, walking there barefoot in the summer.

In Peoria, as in little places all over the country, the institutions of business, government, and religion were bound together in a balanced union in which each part had its space and all worked together in harmony. Despite poverty, ameliorated a little by the New Deal, these were “the years of peace,” to use a phrase from a book by Harvey Jacobs.

Then came World War II and when people came back from the scenes of battle, the stability of the 1930s was broken open.

Even before the war, horse-powered farming had nearly disappeared, but after the war it vanished as did the subsistence way of life where farm families could grow their own food and live on $50 a month cash income. The village store could no longer satisfy local folks who now could drive to town faster than they formerly had been able to reach the little store that once had satisfied their needs.

One- and two-room schools were consolidated into larger districts and yellow school buses could be seen morning and afternoon.

And what remains as carrier of the community’s memory, as gathering place for the people who remain, as sign of hope for the years to come?

A few days ago, I bicycled over River Road from Corvallis to Harrisburg, and my question was answered for little Peoria. The shanty where we lived, and the gigantic maple trees that stood in the front yard have disappeared, the site now part of a recently combined wheat field. The places where the store and school once stood are empty plots of land overgrown with brush and jumbles of junk.

But standing serenely where it has always been was the little church. Its name has changed in recent years, but it provides the one sign of coherence in a ragged collection of houses and vacant lots.

Although I know nothing about the vitality or pattern of activity at the Riverside Christian Fellowship, I am grateful that something survives from a time when this village provided the systems of life that nourished me as a nine-year-old boy in a farm worker’s family.

I understand that the culture-cohering role of churches can no longer be sustained in the interfaith age that now has come into being. The intertwining of Christianity, government, and economic life that Americans have taken for granted can no longer be sustained intellectually or politically. Something new, maybe better but that we cannot now know, is coming into being.

I’m sentimentalizing the past. Even in 1940, not all was well in the unified and peaceful life of little places. But that one year in Peoria shaped my life and helped prepare me for the world that was coming to be.

Yes, there were tears when I stood in front of the church. A little joy and much sadness intermingled.


6 Responses to And when the church disappears, what will remain?

  1. Keith, thanks for taking me to Peoria and the time of your living on the farm. The community partners back in those days had a strong alliance with one another; the need for each was clearly acknowledged. It was a simple life (and not always easy)back then. With a love for the church, looking ahead causes one to wonder. Thanks for your sharing.

    • Marv, thank you for your comment. In those days, this was a Christian Church and may have had an NCC student as pastor, but I don’t remember anything about that. I do remember Mrs. Locke, an older widow with small glasses and whose Bible had the smallest print I had ever seen. Keith

  2. I grew up one and a half miles east of that little church. Grandpa and Grandma, Edwin and Eva Smith, were two of the founding members. My aunts and uncles married there as did my parents.

    In that little stretch of the Willamette Valley we all farmed. We all formed and grew, learning lessons of having and not having, getting along with neighbors, loving our land and our nation. We practiced the ways of families, both simple and complicated relationships. We honed skills for solving disagreements or for at least living through them while allowing those around us some grace.

    Yes, and several generations of us returned home there to heal from the terrors and half deaths of wars.

    The people of that community, my people, are no more perfect than people anywhere. We squabble too much, work too hard, listen too little, and lean hard on our pasts. It takes us a way long time to let go of our pride and ownership of things not even ours to start with. Some of us are compassionate. Some of us are stingy. We learn at various paces.

    The oak trees that were switches when my mama was a little girl surround and stand strong now against the rain winds that pound that little church from November through April/May of each year. We kids that grew up there didn’t even notice they were growning, but Mom pointed it out to me during a talk about perspective and time.

    Thank you for taking my back there to that holy place.

  3. George Knox says:

    I am glad that I decided to visit my blog site where I have a link to yours and discovered your comments about Peoria. Occasionally, we drive the Peoria road on our way to the coast and thoroughly enjoy a peaceful ride through the farmland. I was glad to read this primarily because Peoria was my first student preaching point. From Nov 7, 1948 until mid June of 1949 I preached there. Then I followed Roger Carstensen at Sisters when he left for Phillips. Another important contribution those little churches like Peoria made was to provide opportunity, guidance and training for young people like myself who were going into ministry. As you say, it is a different story today. Many of those churches have grown up and no longer need student ministers. Others have died. For many years, at Twin Oaks, I saw firsthand how important such churches are to developing ministers since we relied on NCC(U) for such help. Now, even Twin Oaks, is going full-time and not as reliant on students as before. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • George, the importance of preaching points to the NCC students was true for me, too. I spent all four years at Dayton, the first two years with Floyd Diehm and the following two with Bill Pifer and Ralph Perry. These little churches were long suffering. Keith

  4. The comments made me think fondly of the student churches I served – Centennial Christian in White Plains, GA; Bishop Christian in Bishop, GA while I was at Christian College of GA; UGA; Glendale Christian in Indpls while I was at CTS. What experiments in preaching & ministry they put up with! I’m grateful for their unique ministry in nurturing “wet behind the ears” student pastors, including me, helping form us in the pastoral, practical, personal relationship dimensions of ministry – fuller & more complex than the academic preparation alone. 3 cheers & thank God for our long suffering (at times), patient, loving & faith-full student churches!

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