The little church sat next to a two-lane road among the curves of farmland in Darcy Township, Pennsylvania. It had a small steeple, two yards high, which timidly drew attention to the church. The building had two floors; the top floor was the sanctuary, and the bottom floor had the dining room and kitchen.
For decades, the church went through everything within its stucco walls: weddings and funerals, Christmas pageants, vigils of the cross on Good Friday and Easter Sunrise service, collection plates gathering pocket change, and clusters of people talking and kids playing after the service. The church was a second home for its people.
On a Sunday in May 1995, the morning service ended, and the pastor, the Reverend Robert Helmer, shook everybody’s hand. People eased around the pans of water — the roof leaked, and the roofer was expensive. (The men of the church, when younger, got up on ladders to patch the roof, but they couldn’t do that now.) They were glad they didn’t have to take their coats with them into the sanctuary – the furnace didn’t work all winter, and everybody had to wear coats inside and they had kerosene heaters. They got used to the window being boarded up (there wasn’t a stained-glass artist in the area) and the big holes in the carpet.
The Reverend Helmer shook the hand of Harry Newland, one of the oldest members of the church, who was a boy when the cornerstone was laid. “Rob,” sighed Newland, “What’s the church gonna do about this?” as he waived his skinny arm over the sights of wear and tear. “Don’t nobody care about this place?”
“I have a meeting with the district superintendent tomorrow,” said Helmer, “maybe he’ll have some good news for us.”
At that, one of the boys from the Sunday School came up and warned, “Reverend, the water’s coming out dirty again.”
“Thank you, Jimmy,” said Helmer.
After graduating from the seminary, Rob Helmer asked the bishop to post him in this, his home church, to minister to the people he grew up with. Helmer walked around Darcy, meeting other young people who attended Sunday School with him as kids. He asked them to drop by the church sometime, and they would say, “Yeah, maybe someday.”
They never did.
As Helmer emerged from the church, a red Jeep Cherokee showed to a brief stop, and a heavy man in his late twenties stared at the church and its people, then drove off. Some saw the man’s face through the bluish tint of the windshield and said, “Isn’t that Danny Hoffman’s boy? I thought he moved to Philly.”
Helmer also saw the man’s face – John Daniel Hoffman, who, after getting out of high school, did move to Philadelphia; the same kid whose father never held a job for long or drew a sober breath, and who was teased and bullied by all the other kids and many of the adults, even in church. Helmer heard Hoffman got rich in the adult entertainment business, and came back to the area on business. All other town people muttered, “What’s he doin’ here? Showing off how rich he is!”
The next day, Helmer met with the Reverend Philip Dodson, district superintendent for that part of the state.
“Rob,” Dodson said, “We’ve received word from the county that your church may be declared unfit for human habitation. If that goes through, we would have to be forced to close it down.”
The church closed? “Can they do that, close a church?” he asked.
“The building’s been sorely neglected,” Dodson continued. “Since the deed of the building was transferred to the district, the district has paid for the maintenance and utilities as best it could. But times and hard in the region, employment’s bad, and contributions’ve fallen off. So we’ve had to cut expenses.”
Helmer trudged to his seven-year-old Plymouth, and thought – The church will be closed. He got in the car, then prayed, “Please help me, Lord, what should I do?” He would have to tell everybody in the congregation, they would take it hard.
When he came to Darcy Borough, Helmer saw the same red Jeep Cherokee parked by the Sweetheart Inn restaurant. He went inside and saw, sitting at the counter, John Hoffman. Once a timid, heavy kid who wore worn-out clothes from the five-and-dime, Hoffman wore a double-breasted suit and a diamond in his left earlobe.
Hoffman saw Helmer come in and cheered, “Hey Rob!”
“Hello, John,” smiled Helmer as they shook hands and pressed against each other.
“Siddown,” urged Hoffman, “Y’ want anything, I’ll treat!”
“Naw, thanks,” said Helmer. “So, y’ been t’ see y’ mom?”
“Yeah,” sighed Hoffman, “They’re takin’ good care a’ her.” (Hoffman’s mother was in the finest mental hospital in the state.) “I’m kind’a making up for when I couldn’t take care of her.”
“An’ y’ dad?”
“Ain’t heard from him in a year. So, your mom okay?”
“Oh, not so good,” Helmer shrugged, “but the nursing home’s taking good care a’ her. So, John, what brings you back?”
“I’m purchasing little bits of land in the county,” Hoffman declared. “Real estate’s a great investment, something for the future. Y’ look great, still playing basketball?”
“Yeah, at the Y on Franklin Street downtown. Say, I saw y’ pass by the church yesterday. Y’ know the district’s talking’ about closing’ the church, the county wants to condemn it.”
“Yeah, I know,” grunted Hoffman, “I have some connections in the courthouse.”
Connections-real estate-the church-Helmer asked, “What do y’ know about it?”
Hoffman leaned towards Helmer and confided, “I’m out t’ buy the church’s property from the district. I already bought the mortgage on it.”
Helmer couldn’t believe it – buy a church? He asked, “What d’ y’ plan t’ do with it?”
“I’ll add it to the Redmond farm, I bought that a couple months ago,” Hoffman replied. “Tear down the building, clear the brush and trees near it. Don’t know whether t’ make it onto an industrial park, or homes. A lot a’ people coming’ into the area from New York, thanks t’ the new expressway.”
Helmer inhaled, then said, “John, this is a house of worship, a house of God! Don’t that mean anything t’ you?”
Hoffman muttered, “Some a’ the worse teasing’ and bullying’ I got as a kid was in that house of worship! I tried t’ be a good Christian, follow the Ten Commandments an’ all that! But the other kids – y’ know the Jensen kids, they had this tree fort, an’ their parents were super-Christian? Well, inside the tree fort they had all kinds a’ dirty books an’ magazines, an’ condoms that a’ been used! The other kids had that stuff too, an’ they cussed an’ stole liquor from their parents’ cabinets!”
Hoffman slumped back in his stool and added, “I tried t’ be good, I needed help from someone, anyone, an’ my parents were no good about it! Y’ know my dad was too drunk or too stupid t’ do anything. The other adults didn’t want anything t’ do with me, they all looked like they wanted to smack me.”
Helmer bowed his head – Hoffman was right, the people of the church were mean to him, and ignored his needs. “I guess that’s what made you go into pornography, huh, John?”
“Well, those good Christian people didn’t care about me or my family,” hissed Hoffman, “so I don’t care about them.”
After Helmer left the restaurant, he wondered-was there any hope for the church? Did people care about it? He drove past the church; the signboard’s paint and lettering was fades by the weather, the grass was high, and the stucco face was falling apart.
He drove to the house where he rented a room on Brookfield Road near the creek. He called on as many of the members of the church as he could, with the message, “The district’s planning to close the church! Come to the meeting at the church tomorrow at seven PM.”
Some of them said, “I dunno, we’ll see.”
Later that evening, Helmer prayed for success, but a thought crept up: “Is God using John Hoffman to test the church?”
At the meeting, Helmer told twenty people what went on with Dodson and Hoffman, then concluded, “If we want to save our spiritual home, then I say we take our stand here and now! I say we go to court to stop the order coming from the county, and let’s get together to save this church, which we’ve allowed to fall into neglect, and our souls, which we’ve also neglected! Have we let both rot, complaining but not doing anything?”
Arnie Munson, a plumbing contractor, jumped up and raged, “What’re y’ tryin’ t’ get us involved in? Y’ jus’ tryin’ t’ cause trouble! Let me out ‘a here!” and he stomped down the aisle.
“That, right there!” Helmer called out. “What’ve you ever done for the church, Arnie, except complain about everything? Like the plumbing, why don’t y’ do something about the plumbing, donate some time t’ fix it?”
“I don’t give nobody a free ride!” grunted Munson, “I work for a livin’!”, and he continued out the door.
“Look, like I said,” continued Helmer, “if we don’t pull together, the church will be closed!”
“Aw, don’t be so dramatic,” snapped Mrs. Yeager, a widow who had no faith in anything or anybody. “Politicians’ll do what they want.”
“Rob, what happened t’ you at college?” asked Joe Carney, a gas station owner. “Did y’ pick up some crazy radial ideas? Protestin’, demonstratin’ like some activist preacher!”
“If we don’t do something, now,” warned Helmer, “the church will be closed and torn down, do you understand that?”
Carney stood for a moment, then said, “Naw, they ain’t gonna tear down a church,” waving his hand as he sat down.
“Damnit, let’s wake up here!” snapped Harry Newland as he rose. “We treated Johnnie Hoffman mean, (cough) an’ we’re getting’ punished for it! (cough) We let the church go t’ hell, an’ we let (cough) ourselves go to hell! (cough) Don’t we care about this church? Rob is right” – and he collapsed into spasms of coughing, clutching his chest. People wondered if they should get an ambulance, but there was no phone in the building.
The following Sunday, Helmer brought the same message to the congregation, but all anyone said was, “Harry Newland died cursing in church.”
One month later, Helmer drove to the church as a bulldozer rammed through the stucco wall of the building, while John Hoffman leaned on his red Jeep Cherokee. Hoffman turned to see Helmer pull up and get out of the Plymouth. They looked at each other and Helmer and said, “Hey, John.”
“Hey, Rob,” Hoffman replied, his voice down. “Too bad about Harry Newland, he was a great guy.”
“Yeah,” Helmer, sighed, his head bobbing.
I understand the people didn’t do much to-about this,” said Hoffman.
Nah,” nodded Helmer. “The people-I can’t be mad at them. All they went through in life, they lost any fight in them. They just take it, and don’t fight back. What else can I say?”
“Yeah, I know,” said Hoffman, from the back of his throat, “I can’t be one of them, why I got out. They knew their place, and they’re afraid of what might happen if they got out of it.”
A section of the wall crashed, and Hoffman and Helmer moved back. “Rob,” said Hoffman, “please don’t be angry at me. I was so bitter, I had to do this.”
“Naw, I’m not angry,” shrugged Helmer. “I’m starting to think the church-once it as a living thing, and it was about to die.”
“Sounds about right,” agreed Hoffman, “so, what now?”
“We’ll find another place to meet, maybe someone’s living room,” Helmer said, and then they hugged.