Sunday, August 13, 2006
A Place To Meet
I was in the Marietta Johnson Museum a couple of days ago and there was a visitor who was new in town asking intelligent questions. He wanted to know, among other things, where the main church in town was.
It seems he and his wife had moved here from a small town in the Midwest and the church they attended was of the Mennonite denomination. His wife had been raised a Catholic and he had been raised a Baptist but was of no particular religious persuasion. They had both enjoyed church as a an experience central to small-town life. They had tried the Methodist, the Episcopalian, and the Unitarian fellowships here.
He also said they were Liberals politically. Churchgoing is as tribal as activity as any you'd find, and the only Liberals in town (who admit to it) attend the Unitarian meetings, if they go to church. You'd think there might be one or two in the Episcopal congregation, but today I doubt it.
We tried to think if there was any church that could be seen as the “Fairhope” church. Of course I remembered the old Christian Church, installed as soon as the settlers got here from Iowa. The elegant old wooden structure was demolished years ago, and the congregation moved across town, building a new church in the Patlynn neighborhood, near the armory. I went to a memorial service there and saw many of the familiar faces of Old Fairhope. I couldn’t help remembering how all the men in town, and their sons, attended the early morning “Men’s Meditation” led by Charlie Trimmier – a shirtsleeve, informal service of the 1950’s. My own father, not a churchgoing man, was impressed with Trimmier and the welcoming atmosphere of the meetings, which took place at 8 A.M. on Sunday mornings. In those days the Christian Church was as close to the kind of congregation the man was asking about as could be found here.
The Disciples of Christ – aka Christian – was the first denomination to be established in Fairhope, but churches and religious groups proliferated in the old colony. There were Christian Scientists, Theosophists, Quakers, and all the basic denominations, but for some reason the Presbyterians didn’t find Fairhope until the mid-1950’s. This has grown from a small congregation in a wooden chapel facing the bay to a huge brick sanctuary on the spot and a branch in Montrose.
There used to be a certain amount of movement between denominations, and I suppose there still is. There is no synagogue, but among the Jewish population here as elsewhere, the Unitarians provide a home.
A few months ago a Humanist-Unitarian from California wanted to start a spiritual group within the Unitarian Fellowship, but after hearing the debate about the appropriateness of her quest within that denomination, she found it more comfortable to seek quarters within a more congenial space. The group, numbering about 16, met for the first time in the Friends Meeting House, with me as one of the flock. The building itself, in its sacred simplicity, is very conducive to meditation and spiritual bonding. I shall attend the second meeting this evening.
As Fairhope grows, its churches are growing too. The First Baptist, a large sanctuary on Section Street, suffered a great loss from a fire a year ago, and the congregation has been meeting in the Civic Center. Its new building looks to be twice the size of the original, and takes up almost the whole block, fronting almost on the street, with a steeple that can be seen for miles.
What lies ahead for the churches of Fairhope? More of the same -- more buildings and bigger ones. Much as I admire the architecture of simple white country churches, for this part of the world, they are a thing of the past.