There was a memorial service in our church this evening for a woman who died in her senior year of college. An hour and a half after the service was over, I went into the Main Hall to start turning out lights. Two women, contemporaries of the woman who had died, were sitting in the back of the church. They looked up at me, and got ready to go.
“You don’t have to go yet,” I said. “I’m just turning out some of the lights to save electricity.”
They sat back down. “It’s a peaceful place,” one of them said.
I left them alone, but kept thinking about what they had said. The Main Hall at the Palo Alto church is a pleasant enough room in 1950s-style architecture. I tend to think of it from a very pragmatic standpoint: how we’re going to do Sunday worship, how we can arrange the chairs so everyone can see and hear, here’s what needs to be fixed, here’s what we could do to increase functionality. With my pragmatic bent, I can forget that it is indeed a sacred place:– that even though it is a room of no great architectural distinction, people who walk into it for the first time sense something special about the place, and respond to that by feeling soothed and perhaps more centered.
Even though churches are privately owned and maintained, they are public places. One of the central purposes of a local congregation is to keep the literal and metaphorical space open so that people can walk into it and feel soothed and more centered.