I guess I was about the age of my ten-year old grandson, Charlie, or perhaps a year or two younger. I had gone downtown on the Kenmore bus after school for Wesley Boys’ Choir rehearsal, a weekly ritual. Leaving home about 3:15 p.m., I arrived in about half an hour. Along with the other boys, I ran through the “huge” church until Mr. Farley yelled for us to begin at 4:00.
I remember the large sanctuary of Court Street Church, with its altar area that had, on either side, a choir loft, each facing the other, with five rows for the choirs that would be singing that week. Next to one of the choir lofts was a huge five-rank Pipe Organ. I remember thinking that God must surely be pleased with how loud it sounded. Next to the opposite loft was the pulpit. It had three huge steps going up to it, as it poked out into the sanctuary, like the prow of a great sailing ship. It always remained dark until the minister stepped in to give his sermon. When he did, the main lights would go down and all attention would be on the pulpit.
For a young boy, it was a scary time in the service. I can remember thinking: “Can I leave to go pee?” Or would that make God mad; if not God, at least my dad. And did God know about peeing? I knew that getting up and going would cause scowls and grimaces, so I always tried my best to wait until the service was over, which, strangely enough, delivered me from the overwhelming need to pee after all.
There was a large semi-circle of pews downstairs and a similar semi-circle balcony, where my family always sat, in the same pew every week. Dad always sat on the end, then Mom, then “my four-year older brother, Jack, whose life consisted of harassing his sweet, sensitive, younger brother! Anyway, you’ve got the picture.
Downstairs, there was a large room behind the sanctuary where the choirs practiced. There were seven choirs in all, and over time, except for the Wesley girl’s choir, I sang in them all, from the Wesley boys choir all the way up to the adult chancel choir.
After this particular rather long rehearsal, I left the choir room to wait for my dad, who would come from his job in East Rockford to pick me up on his way home. The church was on the west side of downtown and we lived in north Rockford, several miles away. I always dreaded the wait, especially in winter, as it could get very cold. Many times I remember it being zero or below. On this particular Wednesday, Mr. Farley had to leave earlier than usual and asked if I would make sure the large main door was shut. He said it would automatically lock as I pushed it shut. Knowing how cold it was, he said I could wait inside, out of the cold, until my dad pulled up in front to get me.
After practice, he left along with all my fellow singers. I was alone behind that huge door. I remember my mother telling me that Dad would be a little later than usual. He was picking up something on his way to get me, so I shouldn’t worry if he was a little late. I looked out the door and the wind almost blew it shut, catching me between the door and the doorpost. I struggled to get free and let the door close. I stood inside, much warmer, in this place behind the big door called the Narthex. I knew that because, from time to time, we boys would be asked to go into the Narthex and jump on the rope that hung from the ceiling and ring the bell in the tower. Many fights broke out over who got to do this. The fights usually took place on the steps we had to climb and jump off to grab the bell rope as we all clamored to be first. Ultimately, Mr. Farley would have to separate us and choose one or two to do the deed. As I stood in the silence, I contemplated whether or not I might jump up and “ring the bell” without permission. I decided against it. All downtown would hear and know.
As I stood there, waiting, I stretched up on my tiptoes and peeked through the glass in the door that led into the sanctuary. All was dark except for the “eternal light” that hung down from the four-story ceiling, glowing ominously. I opened the door and stepped into the singly lit sanctuary. I can remember having the sense that a great adventure was about to begin. I moved slowly into the cavernous room and I started down the aisle, cautiously at first, certain someone might see me. I was less worried about people than that God would see me in His Room. I slowly walked further down the aisle, courage, excitement and fear building with every step. Working my way down the aisle, I finally came to the first row of pews on the west side. It was only then that I looked up, and there, towering over me, was “The Pulpit.” It looked “a mile high.”
I thought, for just an instant, that even being there might constitute a transgression, at the least, a trespassing on private property of some kind. Having come this far, however, I thought, “Why not go for it, and see what the whole place looks like from “The Pulpit?” Looking each way before moving, I quietly moved on tiptoe. Coming to the base of the stairs that led upwards to “The Pulpit” and taking a deep breath, I began the ascent. Slowly I climbed up about six or seven steps until I came to the place where there was a sharp right turn and then those last three “huge steps” into “The Pulpit.” And there I stood, so far so good.
I looked up and saw the “Eternal Red Light,” suspended from the high ceiling above me. It gave an eerie, almost “Halloweenish” glow so nothing could really be clearly seen. In fact, the sanctuary seemed full of shadows, and I felt strangely cold. I shivered, looked around again, and took the first of three steps toward “The Pulpit”. All was silent. My weight shifted onto the step and nothing happened. More boldly, I stepped onto the second. Finally, with a burst of eight-year-old courage, I reached the third and last step. As I did, it squeaked, my heart leaped into my mouth, and I could feel my chest pounding. I soon realized it was just the noise from the step. I grabbed one side of “The Pulpit” and stood there, frozen, until my heart returned to its rightful place.
As I waited, I suddenly remembered that my dad was coming soon and I had to be outside waiting for him so that he didn’t have to come looking for me. I was now torn in a time constraint, wanting to stand fully upright in “The Pulpit” and take in the view, yet, also wanting to be in the right place for Dad.
I quickly formed my plan: I would turn and step directly behind the lectern, peer over for a brief look, then quickly descend the stairs, run up the aisle and out the door and be there waiting for Dad when he arrived. Feeling fully confident of my plan, I turned and stepped up to the lectern. Suddenly the whole place lit up. As I looked up, all I saw was a blinding light. I thought I would surely die on the spot. Just then the stair squeaked and my heart leapt, my chest pounded, and the hair stood up on the back of my head. Instantly, my face was drained of blood, and a fear of wetting my pants enveloped me. God had caught me, and I was in big trouble. I was in the “forbidden” place; I was in “The Pulpit.” Only God knew what was going to happen next. I tried to move but was glued to the spot. All of life stopped. The world was over. I prepared to die.
How long I stood, transfixed, I don’t know, a few seconds, a few minutes? I do remember that I was too afraid to even turn my head or wiggle my toes. Somehow, time went by, blood began to return to my face, and more-regular heartbeats thumped a lessening of my fear. As I was beginning to sense some form of normalcy, I became aware of something under my left foot, like an acorn, or something hard. Hesitatingly, I turned my head downward, and slowly lifted my foot, revealing a small shiny “button” looking thing there on the floor of “The Pulpit.” I wondered what it could be. Bending down to look more closely, I saw that, indeed, it was a metal switch of some sort, sticking up through the floor. I bent further down, and, touching it ever so carefully, I gently pushed it and the room went dark. I now thought I had broken whatever it was and might be in even bigger trouble. Hastily, I pushed the button again and, “Behold!” the bright light returned. I instantly received a revelation. The button was a light switch. I excitedly began to push it on and off. Light, dark. Light, dark. “Hey!” I thought, “This is fun!”
No sooner had my delight about this discovery dawned than I realized how it all worked on Sunday when the other lights got dim and there was light on “The Pulpit.” Why, there was nothing mysterious about it after all. It was nothing God was doing; it was something the minister himself did when he walked into “The Pulpit” he did it with his own feet. Imagine that!
It was at this juncture that an event took place which, to this day, I do not fully understand. Standing there in that great pulpit, I felt the most peaceful and pleasant I could recall having ever felt before. I felt that, somehow, I belonged there, that somehow this was what I was created for. In that moment, all fear left, and I was absolutely filled with the greatest joy I had ever experienced in my, then, young life. I began to speak out something about God to an imaginary audience. To this day I have no idea what I said. All I know was that God, whoever and wherever He was, was as thrilled as I was, maybe even more. I began to cry tears from someplace inside me I didn’t even know existed. I jumped up and down on the button with delight and laughter. And I just stood there; I can’t remember for how long. Soon, however, smiling from ear to ear, I slowly, methodically, and without any fear, descended from “The Pulpit.” For an eight-ten-year old boy, something holy, private, mysterious, and awesome had occurred; something, that for a few moments, seemed to defy time and space.
As I rather regally walked back up the aisle, I knew something had happened deep inside me that I would never forget. I pushed through the sanctuary door and headed through the narthex to the huge front door, feeling very warm and looking forward to a cold December afternoon. I slammed the huge door shut and heard the lock click. Just as I did, Dad drove up and I ran to get in the car. He asked if I had been waiting long and I told him, “No.” Jumping into the front seat, I was excited about something and he asked why I was so smiley and happy. I thought for a moment and then said I really didn’t know, but perhaps it was just because I could go skating in the back yard when we got home. That seemed to satisfy him, so I let it go at that. We talked of other things that night on the way home, of school, sports, even choir, and whether we were we going to sing the next Sunday. I don’t recall much else except that I didn’t feel guilty about not telling him what had happened. It was a secret between me and a God who was waiting.