Suburbia at the Mid-Century: Church

Two thousand years of Jesus in our lives had a crest when The American Dream […]

Duo Dickinson / 7.7.17

Two thousand years of Jesus in our lives had a crest when The American Dream was real.

It was Mid-Century: after America rose from the fugue state of The Great Depression to wrest control of the globe from evil. The extreme, violent and costly effort changed the world – but especially America. Millions had died, were physically wounded and everyone was deeply affected. Those warriors who survived were wounded: some physically, but all were changed by a life or death struggle.

1945 saw those millions come home to create a new place – a sanitarium of peace in a new juggernaut: the industrial, militarized and world-leader United States of America. Those who won the war were at peak fecundity: they were primed to make babies – and they did.

I was one of those babies.

The winners, my parents’ generation, were also primed to literally ride technology into the future. The Eisenhower National Highway System crisscrossed the American landscape in but a decade, connecting cities. But technology also made millions of affordable cars that could ride on those new ribbons. The new roads and vehicles meant that farmland near cities was, well, more valuable as a new place to make homes and babies. The food could come from farther away, and the cities were close to work.

Suburbia was born.

There are no atheists in foxholes, and near death experiences make for perspective and faith: so when the new infrastructure extended the home into a new ¼ acre lot format for living, all those babies and survivors were in a full embrace of God in their New World. Along with the explosion of cul-de-sacs, it was also an era of the greatest percentage of weekly church attendance since records were taken – almost 50% of everyone cited weekly attendance, and church membership was at all-time high for polling. Gallup also cited that over 70% of Americans cited religion as “very important” in the 1950s, not so late in the century.

Church was a growth industry when I was born. Like malls in the 1970s, condos in the 1980s, and universities since, churches, synagogues and religious support structures flooded suburbia with religious relevance until the 21st century. In one of these suburbias, Dobbs Ferry, New York – outside of New York City – my family efforted being nuclear. We worshipped 5 miles south of Betty and Don Draper in Ossining. We had a working Dad, snappy mom, 3 cropped and well-dressed kids – born in ’45, ’50 and ’55 (me).

We drove the best car to church every Sunday. We wore the best clothes, shoes shined; we were clean, and we were on our best behavior. St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in nearby Irvington, New York was a modest 19th century chapel, modeled on St. Martin’s Church in Canterbury, England. It was expanded by the great architect James Renwick and accommodated the souls of Washington Irving and Jay Gould before the flood of the Greatest Generation and their spawn caused a new flat-roofed office and Sunday school to extend and connect the Gothic structures.

The bustle of Christian conformity made for a fully filled building – housing Rite 1 and male Rectors, thank you very much. We were “miserable offenders” – there was “no health in us” – but we did wear Brooks Brothers for services. Three Morning Prayer Services followed our month-launching Communion.

My father made Sunday Morning Breakfasts those days: the only non-barbeque cooking he did. This even happened in the three month summer vacation from church – when “nobody went”. My mother spent hard time before the mirror each Sunday morning when we went to church to present herself well, and made sure all was clean and pressed for her children. Both parents often wore hats to church.

In my single digit age years, I so liked the Rector that when asked at school “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I genuinely responded that I wanted to be a Minister: he was really nice and worked only one day a week.

Upon hearing a presentation one coffee hour when I was 8, my mother decided I should go to Episcopal sleep-away camp at Incarnation Camp in Connecticut. It was very cool – we slept in tents and I went to chapel every Sunday. The second year that I was there I qualified as the youngest kid on the Connecticut River Canoe Trip – a one week wind-up of the summer month paddling down from way north, maybe even Massachusetts! But, as with many things, that oasis evaporated. My mother forgot to re-enlist me the next year, or ever again, and that chapter closed.

In the 1960s I memorized large portions of the Prayer Book at St. Barnabas, and went to 8 years of Sunday school, then Confirmation Class during the weekday, walking down Route 9 from my school and back. At 14 I then was shipped to Buffalo for high school, then college in the 1970s, where I never went to church.

Like all mass merchandising, that mid-century flow of human dedication was more about social expectation than salvation. Those expectations were more immediately imperative: get to church on time, look good, say and sing the right things, talk to the church friends and go home to mow the lawn. God was there, then, for my family: but things changed.

As the 60s lurched forward, my sister could not be part of the expectations and judgments of the era, and went to California. My father had a brutal hangover from a life disturbed by WW2, to the point that the once-celebratory nightly drinking of his pre-family days became enough of a morning after burden that he ceased going to church most Sundays. My brother was checking out to go to college, my mother was coping, so I made breakfast.

From the time I was tall enough to use the stove I made pancakes, bacon and emulsified the canned concentrate with water to create orange juice to set a table to support the Sunday Launch. It was a good ritual, until we got home. Life at home then was chaotic. There was nighttime screaming amid the blue Kent smoke and scotch. Daytime harsh words when the teenaged siblings did not follow the course so clearly called out by all the protocols. I retreated to my TV – one even made it to my bedroom when my parents got color for theirs.

I found myself, in bed, or at church, praying. Not the “Now we lay ourselves down to sleep” recitations, but I prayed to God for peace. For my Dad to be happy. For my siblings to stop hating themselves. For my mother – I simply did not understand her.

The swirl of social Westchester County Episcopalianism had no meaning in my life. It was another school – I could perform, do well – even sing solos – but it was a life where God was already always with me, no matter where I was, so church was just another place.

But amid the crush, dry-cleaning and Channel No. 5, the basic tools, words and music, wove themselves into me. I knew this stuff – I liked this stuff. I did not like the chaffing grey flannel pants or the clip-on tie that never sat right on my collar – but God was with me.

When you are 5 or 11 and the structure of the Suburban World is completely surrounding you, the Street Angel/House Devil schizo-life is only worse. Behavior at church in Mid-Century was as tight as my pants, and the mannered niceties of our family simply exploded when enough alcohol was in my father’s system at home.

When church is built within the dominant cultural model often leaving God to rituals, Grace is incidental. St Barnabas Church was beautiful, the other people were nice, there were cool things to eat at coffee hour – but it was just a place. Even if the buildings were either historic or super-shiny new contemporary at St. Barnabas, it was just another place, like our Country Club, where my parents acted differently than they did at home. When Jesus is compartmentalized, like my father’s work, like my day at school, or my mother’s social life, church becomes a visitation, not coming home.

I did not find God at St. Barnabas Church. He went with me everywhere I went. The loss of St. Barnabas, Incarnation Camp, even the singing was not so important, because I survived. And because I did not need them to have God with me.

Having our own children, Sunday Church rituals and complete religious immersion here in Connecticut (and the Diocese) my relationship to God has not changed in the last 50 years. Jesus never left. But I do enjoy saying the words.