I took a long bike ride today, up to the north side of my city, St Louis. What I was looking for probably never really existed, but I was determined to find it anyway.
I rode past Delmar Boulevard, commonly known as the Delmar Divide. It separates the mostly-unprosperous northern half of town from the mostly-prosperous southern half. My wife is going to kill me when she finds out I’m riding a bike past crack houses.
Between dodging traffic, I’m looking for a house. A very specific house that held lots of cherished memories for thousands of people, including me.
5135 Kensington Avenue was the address of Sally “Smith” Benson when she lived here in the early 1900s. She’d later write a series of short stories about her years spent in that house with her family. Those stories would serve as the foundation for the beloved 1944 MGM classic musical Meet Me in St.. Louis.
The story in the movie is slight at best. The Smith family is living happily in St Louis around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair, but the father suddenly announces he’s accepted a position that would move them all to New York City after Christmas. In the meantime, Judy Garland sings standards like “The Boy Next Door” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. At the end of the movie, Dad gives in and the family stays in their happy home. Roll credits.
Except that’s not really what happened to the real Smith family. In real life, the family actually did move to NYC, leaving behind their beloved house and hometown.
Funny how harsh reality often contrasts with the way we remember things. The passage of time and our wishful thinking have a way of building the past up into something that was always a little too good to be true.
I knew all this when I started my ride up here to the north side of town. It took a good 45 minutes to get from my house to Kensington Avenue, but still I wanted to see the street. I guess I was hoping there might be a little magic left up here somehow.
Well, when I turn onto the street from Union, there’s no magic in sight. What I do see are some empty lots and condemned houses, next to others that look to be in great distress. Finally, I arrive at the address, 5135.
And…nothing, there’s nothing there. It’s an empty lot. The home had evidently been abandoned so long that by 1994 it was finally demolished.
The symbolism is not lost on me. That empty lot feels quite a bit like me right now. I’m empty. I’ve been working for a year now toward noble goals in my calling as a pastor here. We’ve made some progress and have seen some good results. But despite everything, I’m feeling a bunch of nothing. I just feel empty.
The absence of that idyllic home featured at the top of this essay is a stark reminder to me of how homeless I feel. This is odd since in fact I’ve just purchased a home for my family here in town. Coincidentally, it was built in the same time period as the Meet Me in St. Louis movie takes place. We’ve set up housekeeping in our golden-colored Victorian house and are finally homeowners once again after years of renting and impermanence.
And yet after being here a year now, I still feel oddly displaced.
You see, I left a lot of people I loved to get here. I know that’s just part of the ministry and nothing worth whining over. I left not only church members, but a community where I was valued outside my church. Now a year into things here, and I still haven’t managed to replace those friendships and diversions that made up my former life.
I guess I’m looking for a community like the one they had in that pristine MGM movie. A home with those warm amber gaslights they had in those days, and with a warmth on the inside to match. A place of belonging with connections to the community and people who’ll stand by you no matter what. A town so precious you don’t want to leave even if the lure of New York City beckons.
In other words, a place that feels like home.
So far, I’m instead finding traces of another musical, The Music Man. That’s the one where Harold Hill is welcomed to River City, Iowa by Midwesterners who dismissively sing to him, “You can eat your fill of all the food ya bring yourself!”
In other words, detached tolerance.
Truly, there are some sweet, warm people here. who’ve bent over backwards to welcome us. But it’s different from the south where I call home—you know, Alabama, Tennessee, etc. There’s a gentleness there, at least, in the good churches I’ve served. I’m afraid the Midwestern way is a bit more stern than what I’m used to. I don’t think anyone means anything by what they’re doing—it’s just the way things are. But it doesn’t help when you’re already a bit homesick and wondering where you fit in.
That house on Kensington Avenue, or the lack of it, reminds me of my church in many ways. Once a growing fellowship reaching upwards of 2000 people they tell me, now it struggles to find its footing. The glory days are behind it now, way behind. And with my arrival as pastor, they’re all wondering if lightening can strike twice. Frankly, I’m wondering too. Can I help the church spring back to life once more and stem a decline of more than 40 years?
It’s hard enough to be a success the first time. But now after that dream has died and you’re looking at an empty space where it used to be, how do you restart the momentum? And unless I can help them recapture that same warmth of 5135 Kensington Avenue, no one will want to call our church home.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m truly thankful to be here and for my church. Times were tough in my last town, and getting by was a struggle. Now I have a good salary and less worries, for which I’m grateful to God. But I look out onto our crowd every Sunday and wonder to myself, “Can we pull this thing out of the fire? God, do you still have a vision for this place, or are we just forestalling the inevitable?”
So three empty spaces are in front of my eyes right now. The empty lot where a magical musical house used to be. The somewhat-empty church where so many lives were changed once upon a time. And this empty pastor who used to feel alive and loved.
All three of us have seen better days. And if I were a betting man, I’d say all three were long shots for experiencing a revival anytime soon.
But thankfully I know a God who specializes in long shots. He promised me in Haggai 2:9 that “the glory of the latter temple will be greater than the former.” I believe that’s true not only for my church, but also for me personally. In fact, he can use my desire for a welcoming home to help me create one here in St Louis for others. He’ll use that emptiness as a vacuum to draw people into our loving family, I hope.
I’m praying hard now that God is not finished with me yet. I’m asking him to show me what I’m supposed to do, and to give me strength in the midst of this homesickness.
I stand in the middle of Kensington Avenue today, staring at an empty lot, and praying, “God, please fill up the emptiness in me and my church.”
The street looks menacing as I finally ride back towards home. People watch me as they drive by, wondering what I’m doing there.
Trust me, I’m wondering that, too.
But God himself is the one who’ll have to fill that emptiness. I don’t have the power to make that happen, for me or for my church, anymore than I could rebuild the Smith’s demolished house. So until God rebuilds us, as Judy sang looking out that technicolor window onto the snow, “We’ll just have to muddle through somehow…”
Yet I am still holding on for that happy ending, the one from the movie that didn’t happen in real life. That’s because I serve a God with more magic than MGM could ever muster.
He alone can make a home in the midst of this empty lot called my heart. He alone can make the latter days of my church (and my own ministry) greater than the former. And he will once again turn on the warm, loving lights of home here in St Louis, hopefully now beginning to glow just a few streets south of Kensington Avenue.