Growing up in East Texas, you can profess to be Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or even Methodist, but in the end, statistics show that you’ll probably end up Baptist. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention’s roots run deep in the Piney Woods, making the area Baptist, the way the Vatican is Catholic. Those not born into the religion often convert, if for no other reason to be a member of the same social circle as their friends. Yet generations of my family resisted the temptation and maintained their membership at the First United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Texas.
For over one hundred years, members of the Ellis/Hanner family not only attended Sunday morning services at FUMC-Atlanta, but also taught Sunday school, led and fed youth groups, served on various boards and committees, and supported the church with their gifts and services.
Throughout my life, the church felt like an extension of my home–literally. Like my father and grandmother before me, I grew up across the street from the church and next door to the parsonage. Like most Texas homes, our’s did not have a basement or storm shelter, so anytime severe weather threatened the area, my parents, grandparents, sister, and I huddled up in the church basement along with the pastor and his family.
As a kid, my parents considered the church part of my “safe zone” and allowed me to ride my bike across the street to the parking lot where I spent my time hopping curbs and coasting down wheelchair ramps. When I traded in my bike for a pair of RollerBlades, the church parking lot once again provided the best surface for skating and pick-up street hockey games with other kids in the neighborhood.
Of course the church served as more than just a storm shelter and rec. center. It serves as the backdrop to many of the earliest memories stored deep within the attic of my mind–tiny fragments of images long since worn and faded. The mystery stain on Family Life Center’s all-purpose carpet. The sweetness of the green juice the day school teachers gave us at refreshment time. The way the light reflected through the frosted glass in the bathrooms.
Other memories maintain a much more vibrant existence. The Sunday I joined the church with the rest of my confirmation class. Various youth group functions. And, the first time I felt the presence of something greater than myself.
Sixteen years have passed since I last maintained a permanent residence in Atlanta and FUMC moved to a new location several years ago; however, I never switched my membership. No matter how far I drifted away from the church both geographically and spiritually, it remained a part of my identity. Indeed, the church left an indelible mark on my life, and even as I teetered on the edge of agnosticism, I felt this church continued to define me.
Over the years, I managed to salvage my faith and my wife and I began attending church once again. While we always talked about trying out different churches in the area, we kept on coming back to Highland Park United Methodist Church. We attended services on an irregular basis throughout our courtship and marriage, but after our son was born in April, we made a commitment to become more devoted parishioners.
Being a member of a church requires certain things from its members, not just tithing and service, but also a commitment to fellowship and worship with other members and to witness to the love of Jesus Christ throughout the local community, which is nearly impossible to do from 150 miles away. The church is there to minister to my family as well and as I reflected on the way FUMC-Atlanta fulfilled the vows they took at my Christening, I realized I wanted the same for my son. In the words of a friend, we decided to stop “stealing God” from our local church and become members.
This past Sunday, we finally joined HPUMC. That night, I messaged a long-time friend, and former fellow FUMC member, that while it felt weird to be a member of a new church, it certainly felt right. For the first time in a long time, I see a chance to capture some of that spiritual nourishment I’ve lacked for such a long period of time.