Friday, March 26, 2010

I Want To Be A Church Basement Lady

Last year I went to a celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day in the little town of Hendricks MN. It’s a far cry from the grandiose 17th of May parades in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, anytime I can sing the national anthem of Norway and celebrate being Norwegian, I’m up for it.

The program in Hendricks included a skit featuring the “Church Basement Ladies.” These ladies, had decided to open a restaurant to help people through rough economic times. Their culinary feature would be “hot dish,” also known in other parts of the country as casserole. They had some interesting variations of Campbell soup inspired dishes. They of course would have macaroni and cheese one day. Another day that would have the “hot dish” with the tater tots. Every day the desert would be some sort of “Jell-O.” Or as they said “Yell-O.” This is a Norwegian community after all.

Some creative person had put together a wonderful play. I am not Lutheran, and I didn’t grow up in the upper Midwest. I did understand the humor. Garrison Keillor would have been proud of the people of Hendricks as they poked fun at themselves. I did a short clip of it and put it on youtube:

I’ve been reminiscing about church basements. I guess that sounds strange. Most churches have done away with their basements. They have activity halls and often nothing of any great joy goes on there. A church basement is something different than an activity hall I think.

The church I grew up in had a basement. On Sunday, minus Sunday School rooms we would gather for Sunday School. Sunday School was divided by the “downstairs department” and the “upstairs department.” I believe we moved upstairs around the 5-6th grade. Early on Sunday, men would come to put up the partitions that parceled off our Sunday School class. Chairs were kept in the middle of these partitions for “opening exercises” where we belted out such wonderful tunes as: I’m in the Lord’s Army, Deep and Wide, Peter, James and John in the Sailboat, Running Over, Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain, etc.

Once opening exercises were over, we would go to our respective round table complete with flannel graph board to learn about Jesus. One flannel background seemed to fit every lesson. Competing lessons on both sides of us kept us from being board. I don’t recall any girl in my class having ADD; if we did, it might have been interesting. Once you graduated “upstairs” you didn’t have the benefit of partitions, a class was conducted every few pews. Somehow, we all learned in spite of these conditions.

The small children weren’t the only ones who occupied the basement on Sunday morning. Behind some old wooden folding doors were the adults. As these giants of the faith, with large Bibles, dressed in their Sunday best, men with suits and top coats, women with fur collared coats came out of this room, my eyes would grow wider and wider. I can still see the power of their faithfulness.

Back to the basement - the life of the church went on in the basement. The sanctuary was wonderful for Sunday morning but the basement was where it all happened. I’ve visited that church in recent years and have been surprised at how small it is. How did all those things happen in this wondrous but small space?

On Tuesday night, they had prayer meeting in this space. The faithful would gather to pray and seek God. Once a month, they also had a business meeting. At the time, this church practiced closed Communion. When I was very small during these business meetings, they would break bread and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Later it moved to the sanctuary on the first Sunday of the month still only members partook.

One other night of the week, the choir practiced in this basement. On Wednesday afternoon, children, released from school for an hour of religious instruction gathered to learn more about Jesus from four women devoted to this ministry. Friday night the youth gathered to worship in the basement.

The basement was the site of countless wedding receptions and anniversary parties. Their own “church basement ladies” would gather the day of the event to prepare the most luscious of banquets. Those same round tables we used for Sunday School became banquet tables with white linens. I remember the wonder of watching them work in the kitchen giving the greatest of detail to every attention including the making of fancy designed balls of butter. That always amazed me. And the desserts! It was always a spread fit for royalty.

I think that was the point of the church basement. It was a place where the family gathered and where each one gave to the other. Each person who came to that church basement, felt like royalty. Whether they were the child learning about Jesus, or the person being celebrated at some great feast, it was a place of community.

My parents 25th Wedding Anniversary celebration in the church basement.

I’m in seminary. I hear a lot about community. It seems it is a word that is bounced around a lot. It seems that we long for community in the church. I think I know part of the answer. I think we need a return to church basements. We need a place where the family gathers. A place where each one is esteemed higher than the other- a place where we treat each other like royalty and share in the rhythms of life.

I’m glad I grew up in a church basement. I am thankful for the church basement ladies (and gentlemen).


  1. Joyce, when I was little we went to Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle. My parents had moved from Brooklyn to Long Island when we were born. It had a church basement too. We had Sunday school there and many weddings and events too. I remember the flannel boards for the lessons.

    In the church that I am now a member, our chapel has a basement. It is used for events too.

    I enjoyed the memories and your writings. It's been so much fun to see the old photos also on Facebook of Salem.


  2. There was something so comforting about church basements; the warmth of fellowship and church family. We need to bring that type of 'community'into today's churches (not the basements necessarily)but the way churches used to be the center of community life.

  3. To take that comment one step further, I would say we need to return to the church being a community, an organic living organism expressing the life of Christ.

  4. This was a lovely read. It is inspirational to me as a pastor and has given me the imputas to encourage and foster more fellowship and community life in our own church.

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