Sunday Night Still

Fri, 07/31/2015 - 8:15am
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Sunday night and the Harbor Church is strangely still. Even for this building in summer, the activity of the past week was manic. In addition to our regular services and programs, scheduled meetings of outside groups, twice-weekly bridge gatherings and dinners for international students, we had two groups “camping” in the Sunroom, overlapping by several hours, and much more and and over it all the ramp-up to Saturday’s Fair and Auction and new Jazz Brunch.

The elegant Adrian Hotel, left to the Trustees of the First Baptist Church by the will of Lucretia Mott Ball in 1941, was to be run seasonally, a place where “worthy persons of impaired health” could come for a summer rest. Then the great church with the pipe organ and bell tower, the one the congregation occupied — diagonally across from the St. Andrew chapel on the aptly named Chapel Street — burned to the ground on a windy winter December day in 1944.

The congregation moved “temporarily,” in the minds of many, to the Adrian. They put a big sign over the door and set to arguing over the future. Nine years later the current sanctuary, with its 1952 cornerstone, was completed. 

The old hotel was too big, not fully equipped for winter, the economy of the Island was too weak. There was little of the influx of summer support that keeps so many Block Island non-profits alive today, and much of the building remained unused into the 1980s. The congregation limped along with a meager parsonage carved out of some hotel rooms, the church kitchen a dark space a fraction of the size it is today. They talked of removing the entire third floor in the ‘60s but, thankfully, budgetary constraints stopped them. Gradually, spaces were reclaimed, literally from the ground up, the basement under the church made into a space that held the forerunner of the Early Learning Center, the ground floor refurbished, the second reclaimed a section at a time. Use of the the third floor, alone, remains a dream. 

On the surface these uses, other than its ownership, have little to do with the language of the bequest of Lucretia. No, it seems necessary to add, there is nothing illegal about it; the change in use was sanctioned by the court, and, no, it was never, as I used to hear, “supposed to be a nursing home.” In my family Lucretia has long been preceded by “The Wicked”— she was the evil step-mother, step-grandmother of fairy tales — but she did give us the island’s first green space, that park named for her father and this money pit of a building which does serve her congregation and her community beyond her wildest dreams. The world has changed much in the three-quarters of a century since she died.

It is a thought for a quiet Sunday night when even the “joyful noise unto the Lord” music that is part of the twice a week Linaje Real (Hispanic) services seemed uncharacteristically gentle. Neither was there music from somewhere else rolling up or down the hill, nor the call of the often noisy walkers who could be anywhere the way sound travels. In winter, that still might feel empty; in summer, when the windows are open and the air is sweet, it is quiet time. 

We have survived another Harbor Church Fair and it feels as though the big building has heaved a great dog sigh and settled into a well-earned rest. The big pink and white circus tent is still on the lawn, set to be taken down Tuesday, and as much as I know the people who do the work of getting the big bear off the ground and into the air wish the beast could share the fate of our deceased White Elephant Sale. I love it. 

It is probably near to 20 years ago we first had the tent at the Fair, casting a great shadow of much-needed shade. We had toiled through the whole of the searingly hot week preceding it and I was awakened the day of the event by a breeze in the dark of very early morning. Thoughts of “cool!” quickly gave way to “the tent!” gave way to knowing there was nothing I could do about it and the certainty those who had put it up knew what they were doing.

We retired it last year, sent it to exile with hope of replacing it with something easier; we did not and that it was returning was not met with great cheer.

So, we collected a crew of the able-bodied, members of a youth group that has come for years from Connecticut to help us with the fair (we are their mission field, I often think), international students recruited by our summer intern, a son-in-law, sons, friends, a man answering the call put out in church, and so many who have been there before, who know the arduous task at hand and still showed up. It was a melding of generations and nationalities, what it should be but rarely is.

It was a good crew with a good leader; there remains something wonderful about that many people all pulling together, making even this big old circus tent lift up from the lawn to touch the sky.

It was in place just in time for the dark clouds of Friday afternoon to appear. The tent was secure but it has aged and there are a few holes in its fabric; I did for a moment have visions of it shredding and covering the big church on the hill with strips of pink and white fabric. The squall the dark sky threatened never materialized, the flags that had snapped fluttered softly.

The tent will be down, a pink and white memory, when this paper is printed. Someday perhaps we will have one that is not so old and worrisome and will stand longer on the lawn. 

On the long wish list: one festive, party-size, easy-to-manage tent!