I drive by the tobacco barn four, six, sometimes eight times a day. I sit at the stoplight in my minivan, waiting for the light to turn green as I stare out the passenger-side window at the weathered wood. A door hangs open and nature creeps up the side. Time has painted it a palette of grays. Some areas have been bleached bone-white by the sun while others sport dark blotches of almost black. A shed, once attached to the right side, now lays crumpled on the ground, the remnants sticking up at awkward angles. I imagine what it looked like when it was new and wonder if my house was built on part of a farm that this old tobacco barn is now the only trace of.
If I turn right at the stoplight, I’ll be at the interstate in less than a minute. If I turn left, it seems like I’ve turned back in time. To the left lies old country roads, gas stations with ancient, faded signs that haven’t been updated for decades, farming fields, and more decaying tobacco barns.
Our house is right on the edge of the city limits, but on our way to school each morning, right after I turn at the tobacco barn, my boys point and shout at the construction vehicles working. Every day, it seems as if more trees have been cleared. Townhouses. New neighborhoods. The golf course down the road will be destroyed in December—six hundred new houses will be put in its place. I don’t know how much longer this old, abandoned tobacco barn will remain to greet me at the corner.
I spent the January of my junior year of college in Europe taking a class that consisted of touring cathedrals across the continent. Notre Dame in Paris. Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Vatican City. Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Belgium. Austria. Ireland. Day after day we stared at painted frescoes, gold-covered domes, and stained glass windows. We climbed ancient steps and listened to our professor as he tried to impress dates and architectural styles in our brains.
The soaring ceilings and intricate details of the cathedrals took my breath away. We attended mass in languages I didn’t speak but observing the dancing flames of candles and the light streaming through the stained glass was its own act of worship, though different from the worship I’d grown up with at a Methodist church in North Carolina.
I can’t remember now which cathedral had the catacombs and which had the relics of saints. Time and motherhood have muddled my memories, swirling the details together. What I do remember is the sense of standing in history, the weight of sitting in a place where people have worshipped for centuries.
I quietly marveled in pews that had held generation after generation knowing that in a few weeks I’d be returning to sitting on floors and folding chairs. Back at school, I’d join other college students leading Young Life clubs, where we’d jump and clap to “Free Fallin’” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” before the music faded into praise and worship. Soon I’d be listening to testimonies and showing up for early-morning Bible studies and talking about what it meant to follow Jesus. I’d go back to driving down roads dotted by churches, through towns where the church was a pillar of the community. On Sunday mornings, I’d be sitting in one of these churches, just as I had almost every Sunday of my life, listening to the familiar words of the gospels.
But then and there, in those peaceful cathedrals, I was hearing less familiar stories. Stories of corruption and evil in the church. Each one made me pause to reassess my understanding of the church I’d grown up with.
Standing under the high ceilings, surrounded by tourists and paintings off the pages of art history books, I dreamed of the blank slate of post-graduation life. And as I wondered what my adult life would look like, I began asking a question: How do we weigh the legacy of the beauty contained in these cathedrals against the darker side of church history?
We haven’t been to church in months.
For the last decade, our family rarely missed a Sunday. We were the ones you’d find to cover the nursery or serve communion last minute when someone didn’t show up. We were teaching Sunday School classes and organizing activities. When church went virtual because of the pandemic, I was writing devotionals and recording Bible stories for the children’s ministry each weekend.
We made a brief return when our church first started meeting outside, back in the spring. But we weren’t quite ready to return to indoor worship, and our enthusiasm for trying to get our young, active children to sit through a virtual service had long since dampened. Once summer started, we discovered that if we went to the pool Sunday mornings, we could have it almost to ourselves for several hours and get home just in time for our toddlers’ nap. My husband and I, both raised in the church, felt guilty that we’d abandoned even the pretense of Sunday morning worship. Now that church was available online, though, we rationalized that we could always watch the service later. Yet, we rarely did.
We planned to return to service in the fall; we’d be sending the kids back to school, vaccines for them would be just around the corner. The Delta wave pushed our plans back, and then, finally, just as we were considering returning, our pastor announced he was leaving.
For months, we’d tossed back and forth the idea of looking for a new church—ours was small, struggling both financially and with finding needed volunteers, and we were still burnt-out from our pre-pandemic responsibilities there. His departure was the sign we needed.
The evening the announcement came out, my husband sat at our kitchen island while I stirred pasta on the stove. We volleyed the names of a few churches back and forth. He looked up websites on his phone to see who had Covid precautions we might feel good about. We continued the discussion over bites of salad and garlic bread while we helped our kids spin pasta on their forks.
“I wouldn’t mind trying that one,” I said. “They are still meeting outside—that seems like a good place to start.”
But when Sunday morning rolled around, we packed up our kids to head to the zoo.
“I guess we have to visit some churches if we are going to pick a new one,” my husband said lightly, driving down the highway.
“Yes,” I sighed, guilt at choosing the zoo over looking for a new church causing me to fidget uncomfortably in my seat.
“I haven’t really missed it that much,” he said, launching us into the ongoing circular conversation we’d been having for weeks—what the pandemic revealed to us about different churches in our area, what’s important to us when we are looking for a new church, how it’s going to be hard to trade lazy Sunday mornings and spontaneous outings for fighting to get everyone ready and in the car.
Later, we stood outside the giraffe habitat and watched our kids point and exclaim. “Look, a giraffe! Look, he’s eating! So tall!” Animal after animal, I watched their excitement and enthusiasm. I thought about Adam naming the animals as our two-year-old struggled to say “rhinoceros” and about Noah herding them onto the ark.
It’s hard for me to deny the existence of God when I see his creation. The elephants and the giraffes and the lions remind me of his creativity. Sunsets painted in the sky remind me of his majesty. An unexpected hug or sweet word from one of my kids reminds me of his goodness.
It’s not God himself I’ve been wrestling with these last months; it’s what being a part of the church means. In the early months of the pandemic, I watched with horror as congregations declared that their right to gather was more important than protecting the vulnerable. As the pandemic went on, it seemed as if politics and the church were tying themselves together in knots, inextricably entangled in a way I’d never quite noticed before. Books, podcasts, and articles that dove into the ways power and influence in the church have been misused raised that familiar question in my mind: How do we weigh the legacy of the beauty contained in these cathedrals against the darker side of church history?
The more I read and listened, the more injustices and hypocrisies that had been disguised in the robes of religion were brought to light. The shift in our routines and distance from the physical church building during the pause of the pandemic gave me new eyes to see the imperfections in the church. I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw video clips of pastors yelling at their congregations not to wear masks or get vaccinated. I cringed and kept scrolling. Next, I saw my local Buy Nothing group, neighbors freely giving away items they are done with and I thought of Luke’s words in Acts about believers sharing all their possessions.
On our way home from the zoo, we drive past the tobacco barn. I study it for signs of change; is it any closer to collapsing than the day before? As I stare at it, I think of my childhood and teenage years, filled with church friends and church activities. I always thought my children’s church experience would be similar. But now, life is full of a pandemic-fueled uncertainty I never anticipated and questions it would be easier to ignore.
Sitting in my office later that afternoon, I type the name of another church into my computer’s search bar. I scan a few websites, looking for answers they can’t give me, and then start a new search, hoping to find out something about the history of the tobacco barn. I land on the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources website and read, “North Carolina without tobacco barns would be like Holland without windmills.” I look away from the computer, gaze out the window of my office, and watch as a brilliant red leaf from the tree in our front yard descends to the ground. Or like Europe without cathedrals, I think to myself.
Cover image by Elmer Cañas.