There was something about the building that made me stop.
I don’t often stop when I’m walking. I walk with a purpose, as all good city folk should, whether I’m making my way to an appointment or just running out to the store. I don’t rush, but I walk quickly, despite having a fairly long stride. I weave through clusters of people as I go, passing on the inside, outside or finding the space between, and I don’t hesitate to walk in the street when the sidewalk becomes too crowded. I glance around at my surroundings from time to time but generally keep my focus on the ground ahead of me so I don’t end up with unexpected surprises on the bottoms of my shoes.
But, that day, I stopped.
I’d been walking through the Upper West Side of New York City, searching for a place where I could sit and work in between appointments, when I passed a church. Its bricks shone reddish orange in the late afternoon sun, as though the architect had bathed them in a vat of a very specific Crayola color. The roof shingles were a faded pale greenish-gray, like limestone that has been affected by too much moisture. It was one of the shortest buildings in the area and was dwarfed easily by the high-rise apartment buildings on either side, which were at least decades newer than the church. Its design also set it apart, its odd shapes and angles marking a stark contrast from the plain rectangular edifices nearby and its steeple jutting out like a hitchhiker’s thumb.
I paused to snap a few quick shots with my phone and watched the activity on the sidewalks at the church’s base. Passersby walked back and forth, crossing at the corner, boarding the bright blue and white buses and barely acknowledging the aging structure beside them. I pictured a time when the church would have been the tallest and most revered structure in the neighborhood and imagined newly built apartments and retail buildings laughing haughtily as they cast shade over the church with their progressively increasing height. And yet, despite all of the transitions of the surrounding neighborhood, the church stood with an air of quiet defiance, determined to remain true to its appearance, rather than modifying its coloring or its shape to conform with the changing world around it.
I would hardly be the first to compare a religious institution with parenthood, particularly given the Judeo-Christian model of God as a father figure. This specific church, however, seemed to fit the comparison more than most. The physical structure appeared worn, as one would expect of any building that had endured close to two centuries of New York City winters. The shades of red and orange were dulled and there were cracks in the green of the roof gables. The windows, too, seemed dark, even in the sunlight, as though they had been boarded up from the inside.
The weathering that parents’ bodies endure as they raise their children bears a strong similarity to that of the church. Any parent would be able to point to a wrinkle here, a deepened crease there and a hair or two or 12 that have turned silver. Parents would also surely recognize the protests of sore muscles and joints and the stubborn reluctance to alter our appearance, despite the changing styles of our neighbors or our children who will grow to be heads and shoulders taller than us. And, as with any aging structure, we also make internal improvements when necessary, from small choices about every day functioning to complete overhauls of plumbing systems.
The key, of course, is that the church continues to operate as a spiritual home for its congregants and its community. The year it was built matters much less than the fact that its doors remain open to those looking for connections, support and guidance. Likewise, as parents age, we work to remain present in our children’s lives. We know that our children are going to continue to need that same support and guidance as they experience their own sets of challenges. We keep our ears, our minds and our hearts open and we welcome our children’s requests for advice. We provide validation, clarification and a reminder that our children have a place where they will always belong.
Children begin their lives seeing their parents as the most important figures they know (besides themselves, of course). Then, as they grow, they begin to branch out and become more independent, often creating various degrees of distance from their parents, just as people experience different levels of spiritual involvement at different points in their lives. Through it all, though, parents and the church remain, waiting for the opportunity to provide those who need us with sanctuary.
About the author
Aaron Yavelberg is a father, husband, son, brother, cousin, friend, writer, social worker and part-time teacher. He lives in Queens, New York, with his wife, son and daughter. Follow him on his blog, Sleeping on the Edge and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Photo of the West Park Presbyterian Church on 86th and Amsterdam by Aaron Yavelberg