The old white church should, I’m told, come down. It stands somewhat sadly along the road, creaking a bit, even though few ever enter anymore, its window frames scratchy with old paint. An errant flame, a spark, would likely bring it down and thus put it out of its miseries. It’s outlived its own glorious multiple uses in the past, and it would take bucks no one has to rebuild and remodel, its foundation as weary and decrepit as some shaky old geezer. It has bravely withstood battering desert winds that, come spring, even reshape the majestic Red Rocks just up the road.
It has been a place of worship for 85 years, for several hundred thousand worship services and so many school chapels that it would be absurd to count. Years ago, little Navajo kids, just rousted from their families’ hogans, marched from their dormitories like onward Christian soldiers to church and chapel, church and chapel, in a fashion that changed those kids’ lives forever, some for better and others not so. Once inside that old church, they listened to sermons, learned the catechism, and listened to a million Sunday School lessons and related moral tales, I’m sure.
Only once in my life was I inside. Thirty-plus years ago, I was a youth leader in a suburban church in Phoenix, Arizona, and my wife and I had brought up our group—maybe a dozen kids--for a young people's rally. I’m sure I barely exist in the ponderous memory of that old church. Its walls have long forgotten me—the young guy, thinner then, more hair, more energy.
But I’ll never forget the signal line of the sermon a man preached, a man named Rev. James Lont, a man I remember for his baldness, oddly enough. He was talking to kids, not leaders that night, but I was listening, too—the kick-off rally for the retreat.
“Think of it this way,” he said in words something like this, “if we believe in the reality of God’s hand in our lives, then today—tonight—we’re all here for a reason. God has brought each of us together here at Rehoboth for a reason.”
He wanted us all to believe the Lord God almighty could fill that church with kids—half of them Navajo, half of them white—to create a moment right there that would artfully shape the rest of those lives.
Does anyone really, actually believe such stuff?—I thought back then, smiling, thinking the bald pastor was at least doing a great job of making those kids think.
What researcher can explain why just a few words stick in our memories when others never leave a mark? I can’t plumb the mystery, but I know that youth rally kick-off sermon stuck in me, perhaps because the idea was so unwieldy, so bizarre, so beyond imagination.
What the man preached was textbook Calvinism, the idea that all of what we see and do and know is somehow divinely prearranged into some here-and-now stage show in which we all play our parts. Predestination—that’s the word I knew back then because I’d been schooled in it. No single idea is so closely associated with the theology of John Calvin, for better and for worse, than predestination.
Somehow, that fall night at that old white church on the mission compound, a preacher with a shiny pate put flesh on a theology in a fashion I never forgot, even though there was really nothing new in what he said, nothing I hadn’t heard a dozen times before. That night, what he said stayed.
Today I’ll work on another story, another life, another biography of some Navajo man or woman or couple, whose own kids may have sat beside the ones we brought up from Phoenix that night at Rehoboth. Today, I’ll listen in to interviews I took just last week in the extended shadow of that old church, and I’ll try to craft those stories into something that brings praise to the God who, as ye olde Calvinists used to say, certainly does have his hands on the controls of our lives.
I can’t speak for the hundred or so kids in that old church that night thirty years ago, nor for the thousands who marched, for decades, over there from their dorm rooms.
But one sermon in that place found a sticky corner of my soul and never left. Back then, I thought it more than passing strange to believe that somehow, someway, there existed a divine reason for me to sit in that old white frame mission church, one fall day in 1974.
Today, way out here in Iowa, another life in front of me and behind, I am writing stories for that same century-old mission enterprise at Rehoboth, New Mexico; and what the pastor said those many years ago seems not so passing strange.