Somewhere in Nebraska…somewhere south of here…somewhere in the eastern part of the state—that’s about it. I don’t remember where exactly, not that it’s the kind of attraction that would bring in tourists.
That’s where I found it, standing just off the road, on gravel, across from a cemetery, all the ingredients of a dead church once upon a time named Zion Pres. Out here, not all of such ruins are Presbyterian. Many are Lutheran, some on the reservation are Episcopal. They come in all flavors, although size is fairly standard on the edge of the Plains: not big.
They remember a time when more people lived out here on the land, when every two or four miles a school with a bell stood in a corner of cropland, with an outhouse and kids—maybe twenty—because far more families were around back then, families with oodles of kids. You needed kids to farm, to make it.
Finally, even all those kids weren’t enough. Nor was 160 acres. Nor were the horses. And so, for more than a century already, Zion Presbyterian and churches like it withered away, not because of some dalliance with modernity or women preachers or death-like conservatism. Churches died because people left the neighborhood. They died because kids left, and what’s an institution to do when it has no kids? They died because people did, a couple hundred across the road.
Birds flew in, weeds grew through the cracks in the sidewalks, and vandals did what vandals do. Whoever owns the place got told by an insurance man that the only way to protect themselves from the court would be to make sure nobody got inside the place anymore. “I don’t care what you do really, but you’ve got to protect your interests—put some 2×12’s up over the front door—do something anyway, or you’ll lose your shirt,” that insurance guy must have said.
You can cry for the church, but as long as you’re at it, let a few tears fall for the whole neighborhood out there—for the school, long gone, I’m sure. Life and death on the Plains.
As it was even before its demise, this forsaken country church is a startling image. For believers, it’s even a little scary. Those demanding planks barring the door look and feel a little “thou-shalt-not”, what’s left of fire and brimstone.
But that’s not the story at Zion Pres. No one is afraid of the pulpit. No one is scarlet-lettered. The sadness—although it’s not profound—is not that Zion Pres did the gospel wrong, but that the only residents in the area these days are the ones across the street beneath granite stones that could use some cleaning. Truth be known, they’re gone too. No one wants in at Zion Pres.
I can’t help thinking this week that the barred doors of Zion Pres, way out in the country, suggest what the followers of Jesus felt late Thursday night, and all day Friday and Saturday. Think of it. “It’s over,” they might have thought, even said. “The whole five-loaves-and-two-fishes thing, the ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ the flipped temple table, that batch of suicidal pigs, Lazarus in a winding sheet, dinners with harlots and crooked pols, and that kid thing, too—you remember? ‘Go on and let them come sit in my lap,’ he said, ‘and see if you can learn something for once thereby.’” And then that wry smile.
They had to believe it was done. Finished. Over. Time to go back to boats and nets and H and R Block. It had been fun for a while, a real kick. Sometimes they thought the whole thing just might upset the whole Roman apple cart, you know?
And then Golgotha. Good Friday.
It’s over. The good times are behind us, the people long gone.
It had to be something like that, something like Zion Pres, somewhere out on some lonesome gravel road, dying.