A reunion. A day of reminiscing. A celebration years in the making. There are many ways to describe what the day felt like that early Sunday morning as members old and new gathered for the last time in the little sanctuary of Central United Methodist Church in Dalhart, Texas. I watched as strangers introduced themselves and old friends embraced each other. People from all over the Texas Panhandle had joined together because they shared one common denominator, a 116-year-old church had an influence on their life. Now it was time to celebrate the old and welcome the new.
Before the service began, Assistant Pastor Tyler Looney gave me directions to the closest restroom. “You go down the stairs then make a hard turn to the right and it’s behind you. It’s kind of confusing; you wonder why we built a whole new church.” I made my way down the creaking steps wondering how the people in the church navigate these narrow stairs and hallways.
Back in the sanctuary, I noticed things missing. Sheet rock covered the walls where stained glass windows once stood. Neon back-lighting is all that remains where the cross hung. Even small portions of trim had been removed, all to be placed in the new sanctuary across the street.
The service in the old church building lasted less than 10 minutes but still managed to stir the emotions of even those who had no connection to the church. “The number of lives touched and blessed here,” started Pastor Steve Patterson, “this truly has been a sacred place for us all. Amen?” The congregation then stood to join in singing the last hymn. Patterson seemed to get emotional as he explained how the hymn was chosen. “This song kept coming up. As I read through the words of it, and we’ve sung this many, many times,” he paused to smile, “this is the one we need to sing.” There’s Within My Heart a Melody began to bellow from the organ, music ringing through the sanctuary for the last time.
The service ended and once again I traveled down the stairs with very detailed directions to the Fellowship Hall. The room was overflowing and they were already out of coffee. Ron Enns, at the helm of the coffee maker, overheard that I was going to go over to the new building. He beamed, “Make sure you go in from the front. You need to see it from the front.”
I crossed the street and began walking down the side walk, an enormous building towering over me on my left, a row of much smaller houses across the street on my right. Residents stood in their driveway just watching, as if they knew something great was happening that day. I made my way up the concrete steps and through the glass doors into the church.
Immediately, I was taken aback by huge wooden doors with intricate details, bright lights hanging from beautiful chandeliers, wide open space, the smell of a new building. Straight ahead was the massive sanctuary that had all the details to make it feel very much like the old sanctuary. Bright red carpet lay on the floor, the dark pews matched the trim around the room, and the giant stained glass that once stood at the wrong end of the old sanctuary now hung in the front for everyone to admire. The open concept fellowship hall was past the sanctuary to the left, and offices and classrooms lined the halls to the right. I got lost as I wondered the building, this time not from confusion, but from bewilderment in examining every little detail that had so much thought put into it.
The sanctuary still felt open and spacious even packed full for its first service. Music filled the room for the first time as the organ played and everyone took their place. Early in the service, Pastor Patterson called the children to the front. “This is a special day for you. I want you to always remember the first children’s sermon in the new building. Can you do that?” Suddenly he was no longer the pastor, but a proud grandfather sharing a moment with his grandchildren. “And one day when you come back and you’ve got children, you’ll be able to tell them about that first service in the new church.”
Next came the thanking of the many people involved in the building process, from the construction companies all the way down to the church member who sewed the pillows for the altar. Not a name was left forgotten, especially God’s. “He walked along side us and He blessed us financially, and you gave sacrificially.” Patterson continued proudly, “That’s going to be a great testament to other churches in our Conference and to other churches in the world that God can do great things.”
A church celebration day wouldn’t be complete without barbecue and fellowship. I left the church not only full of food, but also full of hope and encouragement for the things happening around the Northwest Texas Conference. Some of Steve Patterson’s closing words rang in my head, “We have been able to be here for 116 years because the message has always been about Jesus. If we want to continue to be here for the next 100 years, we need to remember that the message is always about Jesus.”