A few years ago I did a wedding at the church for a couple who were not official members of the congregation. The first time I met with them for premarital counseling, one of them asked if they could check out the church basement. Sure, I said, with a slight hesitation, as we had already determined that they would get ready elsewhere and would not need “the bride’s room” to get ready. As it turns out, this bride was the granddaughter of a pastor and she had a particular fascination with churches. When we got downstairs, she took a big sniff, and said, “This smells just like a church basement should.”
I wasn’t sure how to react. We had just done some renovations that included new drainage that would prevent the plaster walls from seeping water, so I was hoping she was not smelling fresh mold.
I’ve served a lot of churches, most of them with musty old basements. In my first call, the choir music was stored in the basement and got moldy, so we had a good old-fashioned “wipe all the music down with diluted bleach” party. We also availed ourselves of the opportunity to throw away the life-sized nativity set, since Joseph’s head was bashed in and one of the wise men was missing a hand. That was before we found fifteen bags of bulk mail that were never delivered as someone hid them in the bowels of the church basement.
More recently, I’ve begun to think of church basements as magical places because of the great changes that begin in them. How many 12 Step groups meet in church basements, in uneven circles of beige folding chairs, where people admit so much truth in their lives and seek deep transformation? Those groups don’t work for everyone, I know, but I also know people who know they would be dead in some gutter without them.
This week I attended a meeting in the basement room of another church. It was as you would suppose – acoustic tile ceiling, fluorescent lights, that unique slight smell, beige metal folding chairs, long tables, pillars in the middle of the room holding up the sanctuary one floor up.
Forty of us gathered in that church basement to talk about poverty, and the new Poor People’s Campaign, about being civilly disobedient to let the powers that be know that we really are serious about our friends who live with so little while we live with so much. We signed things, and talked about why we were there, and promised to do something. I wonder what spell J.K. Rowling would write for that, ending poverty. Luxurios totem, maybe, or abudentsia totalis.
It didn’t seem very magical, if you looked at any one part of it – a few church people, more non-church people, xeroxed paper, beige folding chairs. People who care about rents, and immigrants, and housing. People like me who may or may not be courageous enough to be disobedient, albeit civilly. People who believe that change can happen.
Even change that begins in a church basement.