Sclerotic Institutions and The Comfort of a Demographic Death
Upon our arrival in Buffalo in the early 2000s, my wife and I began to attend a church in the city near the GM Tonawanda Powertrain Engine Plant. There were a few families our age there. Even so, we didn’t feel very much at home: those families were third or fourth generation in a building constructed in the early 1950s, the heir to a building on that site built in the early 1920s. So, it was great-grandma, grandma, mom, and granddaughter, whereas for us it was mom and dad and two young children unrelated to anyone within an eight-hour drive. Even if they had been warm and welcoming to us, we would never have felt at home there; it’s not their fault. On the other hand, we weren’t the only outsiders: a Hungarian family, one of the oldest in the neighborhood, had drifted over to the church, attracted by a very charismatic previous pastor who had moved on some years earlier. So, we talked about our experiences at the congregation in the same way Canadian comedians talk about their experiences in the USA.
No other Hungarian or Polish families attended there, the old families of the neighborhood who built all those grand Victorian multi-family houses a century before. Those old families had perished without heirs, none in the neighborhood, anyway. Neither did the new inhabitants of those houses attend, the Puerto Ricans. In fact, when one of them wandered into the church building looking for God, they were shooed away. In an odd irony, then, the congregation was composed of people who had never lived in the neighborhood; they were the actual outsiders. More distressing, they had no interest in the neighborhood around them. They never had to. The core membership kept the building going, along with all its attendant traditions, without ever having to build outward. They simply built up during the post-war boom, commuting in from the suburbs, for some strange reason, and they had made a cultural and spiritual institution off-limits to those who could have benefited from it, stationed at the corner of two main streets as a foreboding citadel of an occupying force.
This I say with almost twenty years of hindsight and the experience of participation in healthier institutions. At the time, I was mystified. My wife, however, was not, made certain evaluations, judged for herself, and she departed to another congregation almost forthwith, with the kids, while I stayed on, having been roped into a nominal leadership position. There is a certain emotional slavery, you see, that prevents one from just quitting when you’ve been so kindly recruited to actually lead. It is a flattery to a young man who is trying to establish himself in a new and foreign land.
My Hungarian friends eventually helped me see that, aside from those few multi-generational families, there were only old maids sitting in the pews, elderly women who had never married. Another lady, while drunk, accidentally mentioned to me that a long-passed pastor had a son who, when he was a teenager, liked to break into the sacristy with her husband, who was in his 30s at the time, so that they could get drunk together on the communion wine. She called me when she sobered up and told me to forget she mentioned it.
A family friend of mine, representing a generation of one of those old families, departed, taking his wife and children to another congregation. Afterwards, when the furnace fan blew across the pews, you could almost hear bones rattling. What few elderly men there were piled into the back pews, according to ancient tradition, and cried and complained about how things weren’t like they were in the old days, and they squirmed all during God’s service, invoking that other tradition of judging the sermon by its length instead of its content, behaving altogether as if their long-passed mothers were close at hand to rebuke them for their very naughty church behavior.
One Sunday, the new pastor, already as miserable as any of the rest of us, broke character, garnering my attention, at least, when, during a children’s message, he knocked on the wooden altar and asked if the long-passed pastor was in there. “Nope, I guess he’s dead,” the pastor concluded. I guffawed, and all the old men glared at me. My Hungarian friends later informed me that the long-passed Pastor had actually died there, literally, on the floor before the altar, during a Sunday church service in which he had been particularly harsh on the people there. “They thought he was play-acting,” they told me. “He had been a rather dramatic fellow on regular occasion. It was us who called for an ambulance, but he was already dead. Heart attack struck him like a gong.”
At a meeting I mentioned that a number of recent deaths had gone without any bequests to the congregation, nor had we gained any new membership to provide financially for our reason-of-being, so one of the 73-year-old toddlers stood up and squawked that laziest of epithets: “God will provide.” “But he’s chosen you as a means by which to provide,” I shot back. “If I believed that like you believe it, I could walk in front of a moving bus without using the good sense to turn my head one way and another. We can actually see the oncoming bus, and you would say something so childish as ‘God will provide.’” A smart toddler he was, and he said, “Our Lord commands us to have a childish faith.” I gave up. So, he’d heard that admonition before, and had a rejoinder prepared. It was over.
They had killed the pastor, see, like they killed Jesus, but in their case, he didn’t rise from the dead. In some sort of perversion of the story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, they had invoked a recursion of the ashes.
Sclerotic institutions die all the time, but some can die healthy deaths.
I saw once when I was a little boy an elderly man sell all his possessions in a public auction, even a spare toilet seat, and immediately afterward, summon his children and grandchildren to a feast where he did two things: he divided the profits of the auction among them; he announced that he was about to die. The children wept bitterly; the grandchildren less so, according to age, but there was redolent in the atmosphere of the family, among those tears, thanksgiving and joy, over a patriarch who had given them life, and who had also here set them free from him, so that they might not quarrel over what was his. The somber tone eventually lifted, especially when he made sure everyone had refilled their glasses with wine, and the feast continued, but not without losing its character as a farewell. He did die almost a year later. His barn was sold and demolished, and a residential subdivision rose in its place. It remains the family farm, nonetheless, metamorphized. I remember his name: Coyte. Not coyote: Coyte.
What bothers me about all this is that we’re not seeing a decent proportion of healthy deaths to unhealthy deaths. For example, quite by luck, I stumbled into a healthy gun club. Whereas my previous experiences were of two sorts, 1) the move toward a restaurant and social club to funnel funds toward the purchase of new toys for the board members, or 2) the withdrawal into a fantasy paramilitary quasi-militia, “tacticool”—now I’m in a club whose board members are actively giving up their positions in order to make room for younger enthusiasts such as myself, with funding going toward programs. That is to say, the old-timers are trying to build interest in their club to people who are far removed from it, to renew an appreciation for their way of life. Long-time board members prefer to be out of power so that their club can prosper and grow, but it is one healthy institution to several aforementioned unhealthy ones.
Has it always been this way? Perhaps this is the movement of the cosmos, how we learn, generation-by-generation, what a good death is versus hanging on to dust and ash until the darkness falls. I’d like to see churches die good deaths so that they can rise again, but I fear that they cannot bear to confess their sins, the necessary first leap toward a good death. It’s easy for me to say, being an outsider, watching the snow globe slowly settle out. It’s another thing to be inside the blizzard. A friend of mine is the grandson of a very prominent pastor in the region who was defrocked and removed from the ministerium after fifty years of sexual abuse finally came to light, but who continues on because his congregation refuses to acknowledge what he did. They’re simply in denial, defiant, really, in the face of over twenty witnesses, all women, ages ranging from nineteen to eighty-nine. He was a superhero to them (not to those women, I must say), and they’d prefer to die an ignominious death on that filth. When he dies, they will certainly die with him, without any hope for rising again. Can’t they hear the undertaker’s shovel? As for my friend, he finally came to acknowledge his grandfather’s perfidy, and only tentatively and with great reservation some years later, after his career moved him out-of-state, where he experienced life under a pastor who wasn’t sexually abusing the women of his congregation.
What if it hasn’t always been this way? I toy with the notion that my immediate forebears, who aren’t dead yet, are reluctant to choose successors in the same way that their immediate forebears were more willing to do, and that this is a particularly generational thing, a generation possessed by a particular zeitgeist which will yield entropy even as we progress in more superficial ways, not addressing the spirit of the local community.
“The young people just aren’t interested in what we’re doing.” I’ve heard that lament a million times. “We can’t compete with smart phones.” Probably not. Maybe not. How would we know? And what does that have to do with the spirit of an institution? “If we can’t keep a grocery store open, how can we stay open?” Who’s “we”? Wouldn’t it be great to hear, “We’ve marginalized our own children and the community we’re supposed to serve, and we did it with rank hypocrisy, and that’s why they won’t carry us forward”? What follows? Vituperation? For a while, perhaps, but wouldn’t a reconciliation toward restoration be the lasting result? Ah, but to say that we participated in this evil thing requires real pain, a painful death before death absolves us of responsibility, a painful communal death.
Again, easy for me to say. Another friend of mine is the grandson of a retired officer of a state agency who has tried to also retire from the chairmanship of a local congregation, but each time he does, his entire family, including adult children with grandchildren themselves—four generations—they all quit supporting the congregation, so he feels compelled to continue on. “Why don’t you step into your grandfather’s position?” I asked. My friend responded, “Mom won’t have it.” What? “Without Grandpa as chairman, church just isn’t church.” Thus, when Grandpa dies, they bury their church with him. Oh, its doors might remain open, as so many aging non-church local service organizations remain open (I’m using churches as a stand-in for all local community service organizations), hanging open on one hinge, but its power as an institution, both as an inter-familial phenomenon building common bonds, as well as a force for community good, will be buried.
Pointing to unfavorable demographics is no way to go to the grave. However, identifying the soul of an institution is far more difficult. Identifying its sickness is more difficult still. Enduring institutional death is a difficulty of another magnitude and rising again is all but impossible.
I used to fish in the creek behind Coyte’s barn. There was a tree there he absolutely hated. My father had to shame him for the language he used about that tree when I was nearby, but the shame did nothing for the hate. Over his lifetime he had chopped it down, poisoned it, poured gasoline on it, burned out its stump, and ground it down six feet below the earth, but it kept growing back. “How does this blasted thing keep growing back? This is impossible!” There is always hope for a tree.