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0 Comments | Sep 17, 2018

Those Who Speak, Ch. 3 – Arrival

February 11, 1963

 

137451910_XS“Mister Chamberlain, it’s a real pleasure to finally meet you in person,”

“Mister Brentwood, the pleasure is all mine, and please let’s stick with Cyrus, shall we? No need to stand on formalities if we’re going to be working together.”

“Fair enough,” Brentwood replied. “You be Cyrus, and I’ll be Frank. But I wouldn’t describe what’s happening here so much as working together, except perhaps in the most distant possible sense. After all, as I hope I made clear in our calls, it is not my desire or intent to interfere in any way with how you choose to build and operate this church. I’m simply pleased that you’ve agreed to help me out of a sticky situation, even if only temporarily.”

“Well, Frank, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve both helped each other out of some difficulty.”

Cyrus and his newest acquaintance were sitting in a back booth at a small Wellington eatery called Ruthie’s. It had been a local fixture for longer than all but the most senior residents could recall, seeing as how Ruthie herself was well past eighty and had started the restaurant back when people still believed that the First World War was going to be the only world war. In all those years, the menu had not changed in any significant way.

“More coffee?” Ruthie said. She was making her rounds of the tables, only a few of which were occupied as it was well past the dinner hour. It was the pose everyone in the small town thought of whenever they thought of Ruthie—glass carafe of regular coffee in one hand, decaf in the other, benign floral print dress covered with an apron that looked straight out of the washing machine despite her having been closely involved in nearly all of the cooking that had taken place for the past nine or so hours. Folks just assumed that she kept a spare clean one hanging on the kitchen door for when she came out into the dining area.

“Thank you, Ruthie,” Brentwood said, leaning back to give her free access to his nearly empty cup. She filled both his and Cyrus’s.

“Frank, I’m sure I have not been introduced to your friend here,” she said. “He’s quite young and dashing, isn’t he?” She offered the sort of flirting wink toward Cyrus that an octogenarian can easily get away with when addressing a man more than sixty years her junior.

“Apologies for my rudeness, Ruthie. This is Pastor—nearly Pastor anyway—Cyrus Chamberlain. Cyrus has agreed to make a go of getting my little church started up. You know, out on Old Parish Road.”

“Well welcome to town, Pastor Chamberlain,” Ruthie said. “And I expect to see you in here on a regular basis. We don’t have that many pastors in town, so one more will help with the business.”

“Thank you, ma’am, and I look forward to doing just that. Frank here has already offered his recommendations for the best items on your menu, and based on my first experience,” he gestured to the empty plate before him, “I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of one another. Besides which I’m single and not terribly handy in the kitchen. Truth is you may well come to get sick of seeing me.”

“I hope so indeed,” she said offering the broadest, most genuine smile Cyrus might have ever seen in his life. She glanced to another nearby table, spied a couple more empty cups, and was on her way.”

“She seems like good people,” Cyrus said, lifting his cup and taking a small sip.

“Truer words, my friend,” Brentwood replied. “Truer words.”

“So, Frank, you’ve told me lots about your situation. I’ve told you the high points—if that’s the right phrase—of mine. But here’s a thing I still don’t quite understand. I’ve heard of plenty of developers building spec houses—market picks up, you hire a builder, put up a few houses on the optimistic assumption that someone will buy them from you once they’re done. I’ve never heard of someone building a spec church though. And so far out of town besides. Forgive any potential impertinence, but there must be a method to your madness.”

“Or maybe it’s just good old fashioned madness,” Brentwood replied. Frank Brentwood was by no means a young man. Though nowhere near Ruthie’s league, he was on the downside of sixty and had the gray hair and paunch to prove it. But a good part of that paunch had come from a lifetime of good eating, which had, in turn, come from an extremely successful business career built on a number of successful textile factories he had started in southern New England. Decades from now, all of this work, and the jobs and prosperity it had engendered, would migrate to far distant countries, but for now, in this optimistic era of a young invincible President Kennedy, the mills and the looms were humming, leaving Frank Brentwood a very prosperous fellow indeed.

And while Frank fancied himself a God-fearing man, he was less than a fan of the three organized religious options available in the small town of Wellington, Connecticut: the First Freewill Baptist Church with Pastor Gordon McKinsey, the Northeast United Methodist Church with Pastor Richard Kent, and St. John’s Catholic Church with Father Dorian Christie. Frank also thought of himself as a free thinker, which was, in his experience, a state of being generally frowned upon by the three denominations already on offer in the town. And so, eighteen or so months earlier, over a dinner of Price Club frozen lasagna, he told his wife he had decided to build himself a church and find someone who could offer the handful of fellow freethinkers in town an alternative place where they might worship as they please, without the strictures of any diocese or national convention.

The land on Old Parish Road had been ludicrously cheap—an entire cleared twenty-five-acre field for the price of a couple of quarter-acre house lots in town. The plan had been to start small and allow plenty of room for growth later on if the thing took off. Construction had gone more or less as planned, save for the unfortunate incident involving Conrad Fletcher and Reg Pearson. Two perfectly healthy grown men just up and vanished one night because they felt like engaging in a bit of innocent exploration, or at least that’s the best explanation anyone ever came up with. And to this day, not a clue as to what awful fate might have befallen them. Had the land been within the official limits of the town proper there was a decent chance they would have shut down the project over a thing like that. But they were two miles beyond the line, on unincorporated Rockingham County property, and the county had made no stink about the work continuing, so long as Frank and his contractors agreed to cover up the cave entrance so that no similar future accidents could occur.

The work was done and the final coat of paint applied around Thanksgiving of the preceding year. Except by then Frank Brentwood had a new problem. He had been advertising far and wide for months for a pastor willing to move to Wellington and take over leadership of a brand new nondenominational church, someone who would do so for what promised to be extremely nominal compensation. He had then allowed himself to be surprised when, after six months of advertising in every publication in New England and the greater northeastern U.S., he’d found no one willing to accept the challenge. It wasn’t entirely clear whether the difficulty was the location, the lack of an established congregation, the lack of a national affiliation, or some combination of all these factors. But the bottom line was that there were no takers—not so much as a nibble—so that by the time the new year was well and truly underway, Frank had begun to wonder if his little experiment in ecumenical unorthodoxy would actually get off the ground. Only then, from out of the clear blue sky, had come Cyrus Chamberlain, in the form of a humble envelope in his mailbox the preceding Tuesday afternoon.

 

Dear Mr. Brentwood,

I am writing in response to your advertisement in this week’s issue of the Rochester Gazette, in which you request the services of a pastor for a new church you have constructed on the Connecticut coast. I’m sure you will by now have heard from many more qualified candidates than myself, but I nevertheless felt compelled to write to you, if only to learn more about your expectations for the position.

Honesty compels me to disclose from the outset that I have completed only half of the seminary program at Holy Cross Divinity School, and that I have—based on certain revelations I have come to understand in that time—opted to step away from my academic pursuits for a year, in order to pursue some manner of real-world ministerial endeavor. I can say with all sincerity that I long for the opportunity to share my beliefs and my message of God’s love with a receptive congregation, even if it is initially a small one.

I am, I concede, an unorthodox candidate for what sounds to me from your description to be an unorthodox opportunity. If you have not already filled the position and would like to discuss my candidacy in more depth, I encourage you to contact me at the telephone number below.

I await your call with the utmost enthusiasm and I offer my sincere thanks for your consideration.

Fondest Regards,

Cyrus Abel Chamberlain

 

It was the only response of any kind that Brentwood would receive to his advertisement. Nevertheless, he had ruminated for a full day before picking up the phone and placing the call that had brought Cyrus Chamberlain to Wellington. The young man’s enthusiasm for the opportunity was more than amply demonstrated by the fact that, following his telephone conversation with Brentwood, he had packed a bag and driven the six hours from Rochester to Wellington that same day.

Cyrus had been clear in their initial discussion that he still had every expectation of returning to Holy Cross for the start of the coming fall semester. Nevertheless, he was excited at the prospect of helping Brentwood to begin building his congregation from the ground up, and to also have a chance to begin honing his pastoral techniques. And since Frank’s only requirement had been that Cyrus build a nondenominational but notionally protestant congregation, this meant Cyrus was being given the freedom to take his ministry in more or less whatever direction he chose.

“Tell you what, Cyrus,” Frank said, tossing back the last of his coffee and rising from his seat. “Old man like me needs his beauty rest. Why don’t we meet here again for breakfast and then we’ll drive over and check out your new office.”

“That, sir, sounds like a first rate idea,” Cyrus replied, rising as well. They stepped to the front counter, paid the bill, and wished Ruthie a good night.

“Good to see you again, Frank,” she said as they stepped to the door. “And welcome to Wellington, Pastor Chamberlain!”

Pastor Chamberlain … Premature? Perhaps, Cyrus thought. But he sure did like the sound of that.

 

“So, like I told you on the phone, it’s not exactly the Vatican,” Brentwood said. He was standing in front of the new church with Cyrus by his side. The younger man had arrived a few minutes earlier, and Frank had come in his own car, intending to leave shortly and allow the new pastor some time to explore on his own. The morning was chilly, the sky a cloudless brilliant blue.

“The idea was to start modest, but with enough land to allow for as much future growth as events warrant.” Frank spread his arms expansively. “You think twenty-five acres will be sufficient?”

“I imagine that will do for the foreseeable future,” Cyrus replied with a smile. He turned his gaze upward to the façade and the steeple. A single arched window filled the space directly above the door.

“I had them put in a bell and a rope,” Frank said, “though it’s so spread out around here I don’t imagine you’re going to attract anyone who isn’t already here. You might wake up Ben Mobley. He lives in that double-wide over there by the tree line. But that’s about it. Oh, and you can count on him complaining about it at some point.”

The pair did a quick walk around the outside perimeter of the new building. The white paint was so fresh and flawless it was nearly blinding in the early morning sunlight.

“Like I said, pretty simple,” Frank said, peering in the single small window on the rear wall. “Aside from the main sanctuary, there’s a small office in the back, a single bathroom, and a nice big basement. Didn’t cost me much more to dig deeper, so I had them take it down to fourteen feet. Kind of a sore spot with me. My cellar at home is so shallow I can’t hardly turn around without cracking my head on a floor joist. And besides, getting down a little deeper against the winter frost line will keep it from being so damnably cold down there. If you get to feeling ambitious someday, you could finish it out I suppose—make some classrooms or something.”

Back at the front door, they stood looking out toward Old Parish Road. “I expect we’ll need to get some asphalt in here come springtime,” Frank said. “Can’t really have folks parading into church with mud all over their shoes or having their cars get stuck, can we?”

He turned to the door and extracted a key ring. Unlocking the front double door, he turned and, with no small degree of ceremony, handed Cyrus the keys. The new pastor nodded humbly, reflecting for a moment on the gravity of accepting responsibility for his first church. A part of him felt exuberant, while another part felt unworthy, given the difficulties of his most recent few months. Frank extended a hand toward the door, gesturing Cyrus in ahead of him.

“Single open sanctuary,” Frank said. “Seventy feet long, thirty wide, more or less. Extra thick walls and insulation, so folks don’t freeze in winter. Got a good oil furnace and even an air conditioner so they won’t roast on the occasional hot summer day. Forty pews—got ‘em cheap from a church they were renovating out in Pittsburgh.” He stopped and ran his fingers across the detailed carving on the pew end. “You can’t get hand carving like this any more. Guess the other church wanted to go for something a little more modern. Me, I’m kind of old fashioned.”

Cyrus bent to examine the pew closely. “Red oak,” he said, standing again. I’m with you on the hand carving.

“You sound like you know your lumber,” Frank said.

“I fancy myself a bit of a carpenter in my spare time,” Cyrus replied. “I assume you’ll have no problem if I decide to make a few upgrades. My expense, of course.”

“Knock yourself out,” Frank said. “You may want to start with the pulpit. Pity the one I found isn’t near as well done as the pews. Best I could find without paying for custom.”

They walked down the center aisle toward the pulpit. The aisle was covered with a four-foot-wide length of deep cranberry colored carpeting that extended the full distance from the main entry to the front of the stage. About halfway down the aisle, Cyrus noticed that the floor suddenly sounded a bit more hollow for the space of about two steps.

“Oh, there’s your cellar door,” Frank said. “We decided not to do an outside bulkhead. Lets in the spring runoff and more cold air. Anything you want to lug downstairs you’ll need to carry in here first. Nothing particularly special down there, except for the furnace. You’re welcome to check it out if you like. The trapdoor doesn’t lock, but I expect you can put one on if you feel the need. If you want to go down, best bet is to pick up the runner from the door end and just drag it up to the pulpit. Little bit of a pain until you can come up with a better system.”

At the front of the sanctuary, the two men stood to one side of the stage looking forward. “Well go ahead,” Frank exhorted Cyrus, “try it on for size.” He gestured toward the pulpit. Cyrus offered an uncertain look and took a single step up onto the stage. It was only a foot or so above floor level, but when Cyrus stepped to the pulpit and placed his hands on either side of the angled top, he suddenly felt a rush of emotion course through him that he couldn’t quite name—a mix of satisfaction and fear that he had never experienced before. And soon, he thought, there would be people sitting in these pews, waiting on him to inspire and instruct them.

“Small enough place,” Frank said, “we didn’t see the need to bother with microphones, amplifiers, or any of that. I reckon if you can’t make yourself heard in a room this small, your future in the ministry will be pretty limited.”

Cyrus closed his eyes for a long moment, savoring the feeling. Then he exhaled loudly and stepped from the stage.

“Like I said, office is in the back,” Frank said, swinging open the door to a single small barren room. “Bathroom’s on the other of the stage. Figured folks’d be okay with one for everybody, for now anyway. Haven’t got around to finding any furniture yet, but I’m on the lookout for a desk, couple of chairs, bookshelf or two. You come across anything before I do, just let me know. Or if you feel ambitious enough to build yourself something, that’s fine too.”

The two men walked slowly back toward the front entrance.

“Well, I told the wife I’d be back in time to go with her grocery shopping, so I’ll leave you to it. If I’m late getting back to the house, there’s no prayer in your repertoire that’ll save me.”

“Thank you, Frank,” Cyrus said, extending his hand. “I sincerely appreciate the opportunity, and I promise I won’t let you down.”

“No thanks required, son,” Frank replied. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the both of us. Let’s just do what we can to make the most of it. You need anything, just give me a call. Otherwise, I’ll look forward to being at your first service.

Cyrus nodded as he pumped the older man’s hand twice. Frank turned for his car and left the new pastor standing alone in the entry of his very own church—a church with a congregation of precisely zero—well one, counting Frank. At that thought, Cyrus wasn’t certain whether to laugh or be afraid. He drew the door closed and turned to face the front again. Let’s have a look downstairs, he thought, bending to grasp the end of the carpet runner. Once he had the long runner doubled back on itself, there was revealed a large trap door in the floor. It had three hidden hinges on one side and a single large round iron handle on the other. He bent down and lifted the door upward, surprised at its heft. Opened fully, he had no choice but to lean it back for support against the carved wooden end of a pair of pews. I’ll need to get some felt pieces for those pews, he thought. Can’t be dinging up that beautiful woodwork every time I go down to the cellar.

With the cellar door opened, there lay before Cyrus a four- by five-foot hole in the floor of the sanctuary’s center aisle. A simple wooden staircase led downward into nearly complete blackness. Cyrus’s first thought was Thank God that door is really heavy. And his second thought was Where on earth is the light switch? Fortunately the second question was easily answered. Descending four steps downward, with just his head protruding above the sanctuary floor, he found a string hanging from a nearby floor joist. With a single tug, the entire cellar lit up and Cyrus saw for the first time how high a fourteen-foot ceiling really is. It was an oddly overwhelming sense of depth, particularly for a New England cellar. Continuing his descent to the concrete floor, Cyrus saw that it was, ceiling height aside, every bit as unimpressive as Brentwood had said.

There were no support columns. The huge engineered twenty-four-inch floor joists overhead had rendered columns unnecessary. Indeed, the only features of the cellar worthy of note, aside from its vastness, were the staircase down which he had just come—which emptied into approximately the center of the cellar floor—the large furnace—located in a front corner, almost directly beneath the church’s front door—and the five-hundred-gallon fuel oil tank that stood adjacent the furnace. From the top of the furnace arose a network of ducts for conveying heat to the numerous inlets in the ceiling above. The walls were constructed of concrete blocks and mortar. The general sense conveyed by the entire structure was one of stoutness and impregnability, which Cyrus sincerely hoped turned out to be the case, given the rigors of a typical New England winter.

Cyrus briefly inspected the new furnace and rapped a knuckle against the side of the oil tank, receiving in response the dull thud indicating it was full. As he walked the perimeter of the cellar, he found himself pondering the coming challenge of just how to attract attendees. Frank had been clear that this responsibility would fall solely to Cyrus, but that Frank would handle whatever costs might be involved. Many ideas flitted in and out of Cyrus’s head on this topic—newspaper ads, flyers on car windshields, and, of course, good old-fashioned word of mouth. Cyrus had enough of his own money to support himself for a while and to fund some of these initial marketing expenses, but it was nonetheless reassuring to have someone with Frank’s resources in his camp if the need arose.

Cyrus had begun his reconnaissance of the cellar wall near the furnace and as he walked he periodically dragged a hand against the new concrete, an odd habit he’d picked up back in grade school, some sort of subconscious anchoring mechanism presumably. He made his way down the length of the east wall, noting the chill of the wall’s surface in the higher areas, a chill that decreased noticeably as he touched farther down the wall and toward the floor. Frank had been right about the merits of getting the foundation well below the frost line.

Turning a corner, he moved slowly across the back wall, directly beneath the church’s stage and pulpit area, where he suddenly noticed an odd thing. Nearing the center, the feel of the concrete became noticeably warmer, all the way from the floor to as high up as he could reach above his head. And then, after another five feet or so, the original coolness returned. He continued on around the rest of the perimeter and back to where he’d started near the furnace, just to see if there were any other areas that shared this odd feature. Finding none, he returned to the center of the back wall and pressed his hands there once more. Across a span of perhaps six feet there was without question a starkly discernible difference, one that made no sense at all. He made a mental note to ask Frank about it as he climbed the stairs to the sanctuary.

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