You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a
holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus
Christ. I Peter 2:5
The first time I ever remember being aware that churches can close was when I met a man who lived in an abandoned church. The man, who I will call Ben, was a member of a church I was serving, and he had bought the building for a dollar some years before, after its little congregation closed. He was a solitary person, with most of his friends being those of us in the small congregation I served. He lived on disability checks and a small inheritance from his mother.
Ben had adapted the building, constructing with his own hands an upper story and shelves in the rafters for his enormous collection of books. He built a pyramid to sit in for meditation. He wasn’t what I would call an orthodox Christian, but he had a huge heart.
One Sunday after worship, a man came to the church and told us he was in need of a place to stay for the night. Ben listened in on the conversation and said without hesitation, “You can stay with me.” Some of us were concerned that the stranger might be dishonest, but Ben had no fear of inviting him in. Indeed, he had so few possessions, there wasn’t much the man could have stolen from him. Ben was the only one of all of us who was willing to freely open his home.
Another time, Ben had us all over for a party at his home. He was working at the time for a vending machine company, and he had some candy from the vending machines, which he had cut in small peices for us to enjoy. He had also been clipping coupons, and he invited each guest to sort through them and take the coupons we could use. These were his ways of showing hospitality, and we were all moved by his generosity.
I sometimes wondered how he felt, sleeping alone in that little country church at night, and whether the spirit of its former members lurked there, helping to shape him into the good person he had become. I heard once that Ben’s parents had been hard on him as a child and failed to understand his cognitive limits. But whatever hardship his life had dealt him, he reciprocated with kindness and generosity.
In the years I knew him, I never thought of Ben’s home as an “abandoned church”. It was always just Ben’s home.
What makes a church a Church? Isn’t it just this: the place where we find hospitality and openness to the outcast? A sanctuary? Ben embodied Church. He carried it within him, even as he dwelled in the shell of God’s house.
P.S. If you want to check out some interesting photos like th eone above, of abandoned churches in Detroit, see Kevin Bauman’s photography blog which documents some of that city’s losses at http://www.themotorlesscity.com