I was in a tiny wooden town in Alaska recently when I walked past a tiny wooden church. I find small wooden sacred places irresistible, whether they are chapels or groves or shrines or copses, so I did not resist, but wandered in respectfully to poke around. The church was very old, I discovered; it had preceded the incorporation of the town, and had changed denominations once, and had never been noticeably renovated, though it was clean and kempt, with songbooks in every pew and robes hanging neatly on muscular wooden pegs.
In my explorations I admired the unassuming wooden altar, carved with motifs of the local landscape—spruce and birch, raven and bear, lupine and deerberry. I admired the general humility of the space, with its mismatched chairs on the altar and its uneven floorboards, probably the original cedar planks loaned from the glaciered mountains outside. I even admired the two lonely piano benches against one wall, like cubs without their mother the piano.
Eventually I wandered through a creaky hallway to a back room, which seemed instantly familiar to me, with its gaggle of tables and lingering scents of old coffee and stale doughnuts and hissing steam heat; it was, I realized with a smile, the church basement, though not actually below the church, perhaps because of permafrost. I felt immediately at home, having spent many hours in many church basements, and I laughed aloud—at which, to my astonishment, a young man stood up suddenly from beneath one of the tables, where he had been sleeping.
He was in his young twenties, perhaps, and very polite, though he looked a bit worn and weary. We shook hands and I said something friendly, at which point he indicated that he did not have the language I was speaking. He said something friendly in his language, though, and then he bent to pack up his gear, and I realized that he lived here in the church basement. Suddenly I felt intrusive and rude, and I said goodbye and made to leave. On my way out I opened the wrong door and found myself in the kitchen, where an elderly man with a tremendous mustache was baking bread. He too was friendly and he explained that the bread, and the soup he had on the stove, and the two cakes in the freezer, were for people hereabouts who didn’t have much money, and scuffled for food, as he said. And the young man packing his gear? He is on the road, said the elderly man. He’s in transit. We don’t ask any more than that. Our feeling is that a real church is a place of rest and restoration. That boy’s on the road, just like Jesus was, and who are we to turn him away? A church ought to be a sanctuary. Otherwise it’s just a corporation like any other. We do what we can. You’d be surprised how many people bring food over and leave it on the table there. The door’s always open. That’s sort of the point of a church, isn’t it? That the door’s always open? If you lock the doors then you are just like every other corporation, hoarding your stuff. Stuff’s to be shared, right? The people here for thousands of years did that, and we try to do it, and that’s about all there is to say about that. I have to get back to my loaves. You need something to eat, come on by in about an hour. Fish soup today. A fella brought in a mess of fish he caught yesterday. It’ll be good soup, despite the fool of a cook. Come see for yourself.
This article also appears in the August 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 8, pages 31–32).
Image: lydia harper on Unsplash