(Host) Novelist, essayist and educator Deborah Lee Luskin has recently resolved a conflict between her mistrust of organized religion and her appreciation for the landmark church that anchors her village green.
(Luskin) Newfane is the Windham County seat. The town green is dominated by an imposing federal-style courthouse. Just behind the courthouse and slightly to the side is the white-steepled Congregational Church.
The congregation first gathered in 1774 on top of Newfane Hill. In the winter of 1825, the townsfolk slid their houses down to the valley, where the village is now. Then, in 1831, the town’s several Christian denominations pooled their money and built the Union Hall, where each congregation paid according to the number of pews they filled, and so shared the cost of maintaining the building and hiring a preacher. But this lasted only eight years, when the Congregationalists split off and erected their current church. The Union Hall survives as a secular meeting place.
I like the way the courthouse is so prominent in Newfane. As a member of a religious minority and a skeptic, I hold dear the separation of Church and State and the Enlightenment philosophy that informed our nation’s founding. But I also love the way the church reminds me of the religious freedom so many came here to practice. Like the Pilgrims who left Europe for the New England wilderness in the seventeenth century, my four grandparents fled to America in the early twentieth century to pursue economic and educational opportunities then denied to poor European Jews. So I see the classic white church as a monument to religious freedom, even though I make little use of the institution it houses.
It’s not just that I’m not Christian; I don’t belong to any faith-based group. What little religious observance I practice, I practice at home, in my own unorthodox manner. Worse, I’m distrustful of the way religions have historically become intolerant of those who believe differently.
Still, I’ve been attending church quite often lately – for funerals.
The sanctuary is a lovely place to sit in fellowship and meditate on a neighbor’s passing, and the church ladies always put on a great spread. But I’m not a church member, so I was somewhat surprised when I was recently approached to contribute to the church’s capital campaign.
That put me in a quandary. As a rule, I don’t support faith-based organizations. But the graceful church building that stands as a monument to those who settled Newfane over two hundred ago is in need of repair, and I want to support the building as a symbol of the New England heritage that attracted me to settle here in the first place, and that holds me here still.
So I’ll contribute to the building fund. After all, living in Vermont has taught me tolerance and generosity, and the members of the Newfane Congregational Church are welcoming and generous. While I may not believe in formal religion, I do have faith in my neighbors.