About Our Church

posted January 19, 2010

At 5:30am Sunday someone driving up Route 9 saw our church on fire and called the fire department. By the time the firefighters got there, the church was beyond saving. Our minister Stephen Philbrick who came over soon after the call came in described the sight as not unlike one of our local tobacco barns during the harvesting period, when the slats open up to dry the tobacco. Only this time the fire presaged the smoking: orange flames flew heavenward, taking with them everything that the 170-year-old building contained, including our prized grand piano which we’d fundraised for, parishioners buying individual keys of the 88 needed; Our healing quilt that Annie Kner made for the auction of 2008, a quilt deemed too beautiful for any one person to own. We decided to purchase it for the church to act as our stained glass window, our cross, our credo. When a member of the congregation needed healing, we sent the quilt out to wrap that person in. Arnold Westwood, our beloved 88-year-old friend, died wrapped in the quilt.

Katryna said it was fitting that our church had a quilt instead of a cross, as ours is an extraordinarily ecumenical place, where the scripture is as likely to be taken from the Tao or the Baseball Book of Wisdom as it is from the Bible. We are a congregation of anti-church people: recovering Catholics, Unitarian Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, and yes, a few Congregationalists (our official denomination). Steve Philbrick did not go to any institutional seminary, but rather learned in the pulpit and from mentors. Before becoming our minister, he was a shepherd and a poet. (He remains both.)

Tom and I met in December 2003. What drew us to each other immediately was our shared curiosity about God and spirituality: what made people tick, what it meant to live fully and consciously. In February 2004 he held a brunch at his condo in Haydenville, inviting his “spiritual” friends for a conversation about our various faith paths. I loved meeting his friends, and our discussion was lively and full of friendliness and curiosity. I was sitting next to a woman named Fran Henry, and when I asked her where she went to church, she told me, “Oh, this little place in West Cummington where the minister is a poet and a shepherd.”

I said, “We should take a field trip there.”

A month later, we did. We entered the little one room building with the tin roof and no bathroom and found a seat in the second pew from the front. A woman whom I later learned was Penny Schultz, co-founder of Earthdance and the Hilltown Charter School, began playing an upright piano and singing along, very softly and gently, in the sweetest most familiar soprano. It seemed as though she was making up her melody in the moment; it sounded like prayer.

Then Steve began to preach. He talked about the questions more than the solutions, and he had such compassion for questioners. His Jesus was the one I recognized from my own sojourns: the advocate for the poor, for justice, but also the koan-creator, the fully human, hot-blooded realist, the one who told Martha that Mary had the better part. The one who recommended we all consider the lilies of the field and stop our ceaseless useless worrying.

On our way up to church a few months later, on a warm May morning, Tom said, “I hope someday we get married in this church.” A year later we did.

Eighteen months after that, we baptized our daughter, and a couple of years after that, we baptized our son.

We laughed our heads off as auctioneers at the yearly auction. I played new songs as preludes and offertories and learned about the magic of Village Harmony, and got to witness the full potential of what kinds of choral miracles are possible through watching Penny Schultz’s Hilltown Choruses each year at the Christmas service. Katryna and I performed there every year on the second Saturday in July. It was my favorite gig. My parents came up and worshiped with us, my father leading the congregation in “Lord of the Dance.” Tom and I both preached sermons there, and week after week had our hearts broken open by the honesty of Steve’s preaching and the sincerity of the congregation in responding to him.

It’s our home. Our bodies are in Northampton, but our hearts are in West Cummington.

When I heard the news, I dropped the phone and keened as if someone had died. Tom picked it up and followed through on our phone tree duties while I sat on the couch and sobbed. Then I called my parents. They said, “You are going to be amazed at how both the congregation and the community respond.” My father added, “Maybe when they build the new church, it will have a bathroom.”

A few minutes later, Steve’s wife Connie called. “Steve said, ‘We’re really going to need music this afternoon.’ Can you come with your guitar?”

I had been scheduled to teach a workshop at Smith College that afternoon. I called the professor who had booked me and explained the situation, asking if I could start 40 minutes early so I could make it up for the 3pm service. Ironically, the exercise I had planned to give the Smith students, all seniors working on a narrative, was to look at how the thing in their life they most cherish now almost certainly is in their life today because of some supposedly bad thing that had happened to them in the past. Though this exercise comes from Martha Beck, it’s always been my basic teaching. “Your job is to figure out how this is this the best thing that ever happened to you,” a wise friend once told me, long ago when I was experiencing a devastating loss. (It was––the best thing, that is.)

As Tom and I made the trek up, him for the second time that day, he said, “You’d better brace yourself.” My eyes had been dry for most of the day, after my initial deluge. I had snapped into coping mode and poured my grief into cleaning the house, going for a run and hugging my kids, trying to explain to them what had happened. “I can be a good helping builder of the new church,” said Elle. “But tell them to make it pink next time. That’s prettier than white.”

As we drove past the little Church Road, we could see the remains. The very front of the church was still standing, blackened and broken. It reminded me of the ice storms last year that demolished so many branches of the trees up in these hills. The canopy is gone. So much of what we take for granted as eternal really isn’t. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says, “Anyone who understands impermanence ceases to be contentious.” I wouldn’t say I’m there yet (I can be plenty contentious), but these lessons in impermanence help. And anyway, how do I know something better isn’t around the corner?

I got out of the car at the same time that Penny got out of hers. Steve came striding towards both of us, his arms open to embrace us. “The music is here!” he said. We hugged, and he looked me in the eye. “This is horrid. And we will rebuild.” Then. as we entered the Parish house, the building down the road from our church where we hold meetings, fellowship time and “kids church” he said to Hal, who was in charge of the collection box, “We’re doing that second basket for Haiti. Because we have to keep things in perspective here, people. We’ve lost practically nothing. They’ve lost everything.”

And looking around the room, it was obvious that this was true. Here was my church. Everyone was in the room; it was packed to the rafters with old friends, newcomers, supporters, members of other churches. The Village Church down the road had brought up hymnals. Penny and I led songs. Steve led us in prayer, and we all stood up individually to share stories. I offered our Annie Kner quilt as a temporary replacement for the healing quilt that had burned, but John Eisenhaur did me one better by actually bringing his. “It has tulips on it,” he said, unfolding it at the front of the room. “Which seems appropriate.” And I thought of the five acts of Shiva, the last two being Concealment and Revelation. Though all acts were present in that moment: Creation, Sustaining, Dissolution all danced together in that space. We sang, hugged, cried, laughed, held hands in a circle and vowed to rebuild. As Tom and I left to return to our kids, I felt as whole as I’ve ever felt. I’d been healed.

What had we lost? Not a soul had died. No one had even been injured. We weren’t even homeless; the Parish house was plenty big to contain us. And it has a bathroom.

Well, this. Fran Henry, the woman who introduced us to the church, rose and quoted Mary Oliver’s poem “The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond” in which she compares the dead tree to a lost friend:

Every day
on my way to the pond
I pass the lightening-felled,
hundred-fingered, black oat
which, summers ago,
swam forward when the storm

laid one lean yellow want against it, smoking it open
to its rosy heart.
It dropped down
in a veil of rain,
in a cloud of sap and fire,
and became what it has been ever since––
a black boat
in the tossing leaves of summer,

like the coffin of Osiris
upon the cloudy Nile.
But, listen, I’m tired of that brazen promise:
death and resurrection.
I’m tired of hearing how the nitrogens will return
to the earth again,
through the hinterland of patience––
how the mushrooms and the yeasts
will arrive in the wind––
how they’ll anchor the pearls of their bodies and begin
to gnaw through the darkness,
like wolves at bones––

what I loved, I mean, was that tree––
tree of the moment––tree of my own sad, mortal heart––
and I don’t want to sing anymore of the way

Osiris came home at last, on a clean
and powerful ship, over
the dangerous sea, as a tall
and beautiful stranger.

I know we will rebuild, Fran was saying. But we all need a moment––or many––to grieve what we’ve lost. We will never again sit on the funky, weird throne-like chairs that stood in the corner where Tom and I sat while Steve preached his wedding sermon for us. I will (probably) never again dip out the back door to pee in the bushes. I will never look out that window at the falling snow. I will never sit in that pew. I won’t lean with my kids against that step while Tom does Children’s Time. I will not be in the space in the same way again. The atoms will reorganize differently. The light will shine in the new building in a new way. The building will not have the same 170-year-old smell. We won’t be, as Steve mentioned, holding the old old hymnals or the new old hymnals, or the binders full of new new songs Penny put together last year.

And we will never see the quilt again.

But as 12-year-old Jacob stood up said, “Energy can’t be burned up in a fire.” The love we have, the faith, the memories, the emotions, the good will, the bits of poetry and theology and philosophy, the hugs, the songs, the communion––those remain.

And how we love to be generous when there is a tragedy! How we love to be of service! I believe the human heart yearns for these opportunities to be useful. So Jacob is right; energy cannot be destroyed, it can only shift around, and the energy in that church came right back to all of us in a fervor to rebuild. The energy of the earthquake in Haiti comes back in a longing in our hearts to help, to give, to go down there, to be of service.

The worst part of the story––by far the worst––is the encroaching thought: “Someone did this.” The worst is the virus of fear and blame that creeps in. That there might be a copycat arsonist who got bitten by the bug in Northampton, and acted recklessly, fecklessly, maliciously. Every time this thought comes up, I gently say to it, “I don’t need to believe that now. Until proven otherwise, I am going to believe that this was an accident.”

In fact, I don’t think it was an accident. I think Arnold did it. Arnold was a lifelong Unitarian minister, known for “growing” churches. He had huge hopes and dreams for our West Cummington church, and I think he was constantly frustrated by our reluctance to push it up a notch. I don’t know this for sure, but this is what I do know: as I’ve mentioned about five times here, our church didn’t have a bathroom. In order to grow, we kind of need a bathroom, more facilities for kids and families, a bigger parking lot, more space period. But no one wanted to touch that little antique church nestled so perfectly and eternally in the hills. It was, in a way, a sacred cow. We’re not an ambitious congregation. We want to raise money for the Goshen Food Pantry. We want to listen to our wise preacher read his poetry, follow the tendrils of his faith journey, meet in small groups to talk about why the book of Genesis has caused our current environmental crisis, nurture our men so they don’t become bullies, meet for soup potlucks and Vipassana meditation.

And maybe we’re meant to do more. I have no idea what that looks like, but when a building goes up in flames the way ours did, it certainly raises the question, to paraphrase Rumi (who is oft quoted in West Cummington) as to whether we’ve been “cleared out for some new delight.”

So if this is Arnold’s way of shaking us up, pushing us to serve in a bigger way, I will do my best to grieve our loss, raise money for the new building, advocate for pink clapboards (maybe just one, hidden in the back), do a concert at the Village Church in lieu of our scheduled West Cummington show, love my congregation, support my pastor and try as hard as I can not to be contentious with What Is by embracing impermanence.

And remember.

Thank you, little jewel of a church. Requiescat in pace.

The Comments

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  1. What a beautiful tribute to your church. It sounds like a lovely place, and I’m sad it’s burned. I love your music and appreciate the way your weave spirituality and music together (two of my passions too)

    Thanks for sharing this and, after that appropriate fallow time, here’s hoping for what new will be born in your community.


  2. A beautiful post Nerissa. I am so sorry for the loss of your beautiful little church. But thank you for sharing the experience and the lessons you are starting to learn from it.

  3. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. One of the best things you’ve written, Nerissa. Thank you for sharing all of it … after the earthquake in Haiti, I said to a friend, “God isn’t in the destruction … He is in the gracious, loving response to it.” I’m sending you all my love and energy!

  4. What a powerful meditation on loss and grieving. You would make a great Minister.

    Let me rephrase, you’ve always been a great minister (small m).

    See you tonight!

  5. What happened is so sad, but I admire the way you all are handling it. I find also very beautiful what your church and your community stand for: openmindedness, tolerance, freedom of spiritual research. In my country everything is quite different: almost everybody is catholic and you don’t have a lot to choose!

  6. What a nice piece, spanning the arc of your relationship with this church. how it intersects with your relationship to Tom, then the kids, one by one.

    All without a bathroom.


  7. The fire was caused by a faulty furnace. There is no doubt about that. We continue to meet in the Parish House. We are so lucky not to be homeless. Also, we are so lucky. The community has been mind-bogglingly generous and loving. Thank you all!

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