BUILT TO LAST
Updated: Aug 9, 2022
I’m standing in the choir loft, hymnal in hand, waiting to start singing again, watching for the choir director's signal with one eye, while simultaneously watching the congregation seated in the dozens of dark, wooden pews below, where the backs of 300 heads are bowed in prayer. Finally, Mr. Triesch nods toward us and begins pumping the pedals of the organ, the vast steel pipes behind us wheezing back to life, playing the intro to the Doxology, one of the few songs which everyone in this vast sanctuary knows by heart. We all sing along in glorious harmony, choir members and congregants alike lifting their joyful response to the end of Rev. Horak’s lengthy Prayers of Penitence and Thanksgiving and as fortification for Rev. Burkle’s ponderous sermon, coming up next in the Order of Service. As the song ends, I sit down with a sigh and resign myself to the inevitability of the thick grey curtain of boredom which is bound to hang over the room for the next 20 minutes or so while Pastor Burkle tells us whatever he has to say in that booming Preacher Voice.
The shape and pace of our Sunday morning services here at the First Protestant United Church of Christ of New Braunfels (Evangelical and Reformed) is as solid and unyielding as the 113 year-old building itself. It’s 1958, and life in the world outside New Braunfels is changing fast, but not inside these thick stone walls.
The spoken words tend to be boring to my young ears, but I love all the pieces of music that propel the worship service forward, not just the ones sung by the choir, in which I’m the featured soprano soloist today. The hymns and anthems, offertory, prelude, postlude, the Doxology, even just the short instrumental segues between the various bland rituals – all these musical interludes provide welcome bursts of uplifting energy between the stultifying litany of meaningless words. I have little patience for the seemingly endless stream of monotonous phrases intoned by rote “…We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God…” Such gobbledygook. And the sermon is seldom any better. Very few of the spoken parts of this stultifying ritual make any sense to me, which seems to be the case for most of the adults seated in rows below me too, judging by the number of the slumbering heads I see down there.
But the music! I truly love the majestic roar of that magnificent pipe organ at full blast, especially when combined with the soaring harmonies of our well-rehearsed choir, rising up to echo off the 50-foot-high vaulted ceiling held in place by vast, solid oak beams. In my imagination, when I sing my voice is projecting all the way to the front wall of this majestic hall, landing in the middle of the round, multi-hued window high up in the center of the wall, where daylight streams through the life-size, stained-glass image of Jesus kneeling, hands folded on a grey stone, praying alone, a dove descending toward him on golden shaft of light that illuminates his beatific, bearded face. It feels like I’m singing directly to him, not to the rows of bowed heads below or the black-robed ministers seated next to the altar, decorated with a deep-red velvet tapestry and two gigantic flower arrangements on either side of the tall, solid gold cross in the middle. Could it be he’s smiling directly back at me in return?
Other than the county courthouse located two blocks down the street on the Main Plaza, this is by far the largest building and the grandest meeting space in our small, dusty town. Each of the limestone walls are at least two feet thick and built to last, made of quarried, hand-carved stones that are two feet square, carefully placed there by master stonemasons, hardworking German immigrants eager to convey their gratitude and servitude to the stern God who had brought them to the New World and was helping them thrive in 1845. The 100-foot steeple is topped by an imposing bell tower where two, immense cast-bronze bells ring out to the glory of God every hour on the hour, from 6am to 6pm, keeping the townspeople on schedule and mindful of their duties, while keeping a sexton employed full-time to climb that bell tower and ring those bells by hand, day after day, year after year.
Outside the sanctuary, a large bronze plaque is mounted right next to the heavy, wooden doors standing 12-feet tall. It proudly proclaims that this was the first and largest Protestant church building erected in all South Texas, as well as being the oldest continuously operating Protestant congregation in the whole state. That sense of size and historical importance permeates the structure, radiating its solidity and permanence, anchoring the whole of downtown New Braunfels. Almost everyone entering town for the first time via Seguin Street, which is the main east-west artery coming in off State Highway 81, slows down to take in the sheer size and prominence of this white limestone build, relative to the much smaller Victorian homes, offices and brown brick storefronts surrounding it.
Even though I’m just six and have only been living here for a year or so, I’m fully aware of this church’s history. This congregation sponsored our family’s immigration from Holland, and my parents have made it quite clear that my five brothers and I are supposed to feel grateful for this church, the people in it, and the God that holds all of us safely in the palm of His hand. And I suppose I do, mostly, although I often feel trapped by the stultifying rituals that unfold so slowly during the Holy gatherings we’re forced to attend and participate in, like it or not.
Until we start singing. Then everything shifts. My heart lifts, my throat swells with power and pride, everything inside of me comes spilling out, much like the feeling of being released from the confines of Carl Schurz Elementary by the 3 o’clock bell, when we students eagerly spill out of the crowded dark hallways and out into the bright, clean air. Singing up in the choir loft is the single most powerful feeling I get to experience as an otherwise powerless, shy young oddball trying to find his place in this foreign country. I look forward to singing here again next week.