Thursday, February 17, 2011

Arguing With The Past: A Church In 1902

We've all seen movies about time travel, and the problems that happen when they go back in time and change things. That's not what this is about. I can't change anything about the past.

What this is about is arguing with the past, what should have been done instead of what they did. I can't do much about what they did. Of course in this case, involving the building above, since it's still there, it could be razed to the ground. But that would involve the expense of buying it from the present owners, while in no way making up for problems it caused nearly 110 years ago.

The building in the drawing is the "Proposed New Presbyterian Church" in Estherville, Iowa, from a newspaper account of July 2, 1902. Two days before July 4! What a way to do things, spring the news on us right before a long July 4 weekend (July 4 was on Friday that year). Presenting it essentially as a fait accompli right when we're off to celebrate our nation's independence, then when we get back on Monday we're too tired to raise arms against it. Next thing you know, they're turning the shovel...

I'm getting a little ahead of myself with the arguing, sorry. I wanted to look at the article a little more in detail. From The Estherville Enterprise, Estherville, IA, Wed., July 2, 1902, page 1, it reads:

Above we present a cut of the new Presbyterian church as designed by Architect James Cox, of this city. We understand the bids for construction are considerably above the sum intended for the purpose by the congregation. The building is one that would be an ornament, and a credit to any city; and yet quite within the resources of the Presbyterian congregation, if they would only think so. It is now evident to everybody that this city is disgracefully behind the times with its church buildings, and if any congregation in Estherville needs a new a larger building, the Presbyterians do. We understand that in the last year and a half, their membership has about doubled. Should their success continue, what will they do with their people? We sincerely hope that this new church will be a reality in Estherville within six months.

I've never seen this church, but going by the recent Google street view picture, they managed to build it. Whether it was within six months -- the paper seems to be really rushing it -- I don't know. Now, some of my arguments against the past, admittedly, are going to be based on ignorance. I have neither the time nor resources to research this as I should. That said, I'm going to make certain assumptions which perhaps could be considered drastically negative so my arguments can be made more strenuously and with greater conviction.

I'm going to assume that the old church was located somewhere else, and that they pulled strings to displace property owners on this particular block to sell out. I'm going to assume that they had an in with the city council and other authorities. I'm going to assume there were shady payoffs, and that while they may have had an interest in souls going to Heaven, their ethics were strictly from Hell. And I'll take it one step further, that the poor folks whose homes were demolished sat in the street pleading with the church, even staying overnight, and that, unknown to anyone until now, one of the deacons (or perhaps he was an elder) drove a bulldozer over them in the middle of the night. I'm assuming that bulldozers were in existence at the time. All that plus whatever other evidence occurs to me in the course of the next few paragraphs...

First, I wonder why the Estherville newspaper was so gung ho about getting the project built in the next six months. What's the rush? Shouldn't the people who live on the block have more notice than that? Shouldn't they be allowed to make an appeal to authorities beyond the city limits who might not be on the make? Six months after July, that puts us right in the heart of the winter. Are they expecting the poor folks on that block will leave quietly, then head somewhere warmer, some other town, without putting up a fuss?

Next, if I'm a member of the congregation, I'm wondering why they're ramrodding this thing through, since the architect, a local guy (!), brought in a bid "considerably above" what the congregation wanted to pay. Can't we shop around, maybe get a guy from out of town who's not acting in collusion with the city council and newspaper? Who's scratching whose back in this shady deal? That's my thought. Plus, I'm thinking, if it's "considerably above" what we want to pay, why do we need the big gothic tower out front? That's just wasted space, and within a hundred years or so, it'll be considered so cliche. How about something more practical? Like something prefab.

And how do you like it that the newspaper considers churches "ornaments" to a city? That's disgusting! A church is meant to be a servant of the Lord and the people, not to deck itself out in gold and finery, plaiting itself like a wanton whore. I could find verses for you in the Bible that judge this church for its attention to ornamentation instead of love for its neighbors. Simply displacing the poor folk who lived on that block, throwing them out in the street with winter coming, would bring judgment enough on them. But to stand idly by while a guy in a recently-invented bulldozer (possibly pulling a big lawnmower) smashes them, then grinds them to bloody body tissue, if that's not worshiping Moloch instead of God, I don't know what is!

I'm reading this -- and I'm, like, What? "The city is disgracefully behind the times with its church buildings..." If there's any disgrace here, it's the disgrace of bulldozing your own neighbors' homes, then mowing down their gardens with your mower attachment! That's a disgrace! One, you didn't give them a fair hearing. The city council, the newspaper, the architect, and the other powers that be were all in one another's pockets. This deal stinks to high heaven. The payoffs, the winks, the nods, the chuckling at other folks' misfortune, it's disgusting ... and you talk about disgrace? Those homes, I'm convinced, were built a long time before. People gave their lives to pay them off, for what? Only to find themselves in the street the first time "a church" decides it needs more lebensraum?

The Presbyterian church's membership had doubled in the last year or so, huh? I wonder how that happened! Maybe by a lowering of their standards, maybe by allowing in some of the baser element who would be vital to the underhanded deals in the very near future. I'm only speaking my own suspicions. This church knew it was going to be breaking kneecaps and inflaming the community with an unprecedented Reign of Terror, unlike anything seen since John Calvin himself, and for that they doubtless brought in a few hundred ringers from Geneva. Big, tough guys, brass knuckles, looking like Bolsheviks or professional wrestlers.

Then some of the other folks making up the increase would be local residents afraid of the Reign of Terror, and "converting" to Presbyterianism only to avoid the worst of the scourge. To those who were weak and gave in without a struggle, I don't give blanket condemnation; I'm sure they had their reasons. But to those who were strong and stood up as long as they could before the bulldozer came, I offer the greatest praise. And of course to any who hid their neighbors in closets and crawlspaces, I honor them as well. We may never know how many lives were spared in Estherville. Their testimonies would be great to hear, so this disgrace never happens again.

Looking at the church in the Google picture, it doesn't look as magnificent as the 1902 drawing. They've boarded up the bell tower and it looks like some shrubby tree took root. In short, rather than being the "ornament" they dreamed of, it's complete squalor. If there's anyone left from 1902, I ask, "How ya like them apples?" Because I only tell it like it is...

Arguing with the past is a useful exercise because time goes on. And we can let the failures of the past be cautionary tales for the future. If we want to build it, let's do it justly, and not ... by leaving victims bleeding in the street, victims whose blood still cries out to this day, over a century later.

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