The Other Church

Memories from my hometown in Northern Minnesota

Population 350, circa 1940s

By Sharon Sheppard, the Country Cousin



Since our family attended services every time the doors were open, it was lucky for us that the church was located just a hop, skip, and a jump from our front door.  The small stucco building was one of only two churches in the village.  We always referred to it as “our church,” not to be confused with the one across town which we called “the other church.”

Folks with more exotic faiths drove to neighboring towns.  The Catholics, for example, had to trek nine miles to Pine River every Sunday, and the Seventh Day Adventists drove eight miles in the opposite direction to Hackensack on Saturdays.

A knotted rope dangled from a hole in the ceiling of the squarish bell tower, and every Sunday morning at exactly ten o’clock some lucky person got to tug on the bell rope, sending out a clanging reminder to the rest of the town that if they weren’t already here or at the other church, they were either late or backslidden.

Belonging to a small congregation gave new meaning to the term “active member.”  My mother led the singing, taught Sunday school, and directed the “Sunshine Choir,” a popular weekly feature where all the children under age eight or so trotted up front to sing—unrehearsed—choruses like “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Deep and Wide,” complete with hand motions.  The littlest kids were adorable—lisping, nose-picking, off-key singing and all.

I accompanied them on the upright, having become church pianist at the age of 12, when we unfortunately got a new pastor whose wife didn’t know how to play the piano.  As an ear player, I hadn’t yet learned to read a note myself, but I knew all the hymns by heart, and beggars couldn’t be choosers, I guess.

My dad held a whole slew of positions all at the same time, including church treasurer and Sunday school superintendent, and he transported country kids to Sunday school.  He was also the unpaid custodian, so in addition to mowing the church lawn in summer and shoveling the walks in winter, Dad also kept the uninsulated church building warm—no small trick in northern Minnesota, especially when temperatures fell to 20 or 30 degrees below zero.  On the coldest weekends, he started stoking the wood furnace on Saturday, and sometimes slept beside it part of the night to make sure the fire didn’t go out.

Like a second home to us, the church was the center of our family’s life.  Our friends, social life, entertainment, and our guidelines for living—all revolved around what went on in that little stucco building with its creaking wooden floors and dark varnished pews.

The building wasn’t fancy, and neither were the people, but I met the Creator of the universe there, and you can’t beat that.  One night when I was around five years old, it dawned on me that I was a sinner.  A visiting revival preacher was preaching about heaven and hell, and it just about scared the life out of me.   I remember sitting on Daddy’s lap that Sunday night, crying because I knew I’d done some things that weren’t right.

My biggest childhood sins were sassing my mother and fighting with my brothers, and I regularly got into trouble for it.

As the sermons tugged at my heart, I made plenty of trips to the front of the church during altar calls to the strains of “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling…”  Each time I’d ask God to forgive my sins.  But then my stubbornness would get me into trouble again, and I was afraid I was headed for hell.

Then one day not long after my tenth birthday, I told God, “Please forgive me. I want to do right, but sometimes I don’t.  And Lord, I’m tired of always worrying about whether I’m gonna’ make it.  Help me to know that I’ll end up in heaven with you some day.”

And you know what?  God gave me a magical feeling of peace that has never left me.  I’m still stubborn sometimes, but because Jesus took the rap for me, hell doesn’t scare me anymore.

Some important things happened in that little old church. It was there that my parents dedicated me to God when I was just a tiny baby.  It was there that I heard the Word of God read and taught, and once I figured out what some of it meant, it’s where I adopted my parents’ faith for my own.  It’s where I worshiped and prayed with salt-of-the-earth neighbors, and where I first started to think serious thoughts about the meaning of life.

We were pretty sure the people who went to the other church didn’t have quite all of their theology straight.  “Bunch of dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists,” my dad called them.  Some who went to the church across town might be saved in spite of their misunderstanding of Scripture, we supposed, but we weren’t betting on it.

But you wanna’ know something?  I wouldn’t be surprised if I met up with some of those folks from the other church when I get to heaven.  Wouldn’t that be a hoot?