A Grand Church’s Neglected Death

I wish I had never gone to journalism school. That curse has brought me double the pain this week.

If you’ve been paying attention to Corpus Christi’s local media this week, you surely missed the latest news about the historic Oak Park United Methodist Church. You know, the one the whole city was talking about for a few days after it burned one night in March.

Well, the church finally closed for good on Sunday.

This is the church that old-timers still remember from it’s glory days when its neighborhood was the richest in town, the one  that played to crowds approaching 1000 (or more)  every week for decades, the one that hosted hundreds of the city’s most important weddings and funerals, the one that educated countless local kids.

Last you probably heard of the church, its couple of dozen current member were saying things like this “When we found out the fellowship hall (the church’s original sanctuary) was still standing, it was a celebration. It’s like God is getting the church back to its roots so it can grow again.”

The congregation’s last pastor led the “deconsecration” ceremony in front of 20 people or so under an old oak tree on the church’s front lawn. My father, who grew up near the church, was not the only one who cried throughout.

Everything on the property (yes, even that fellowship hall) will soon be raised entirely.

“This place has so much history,” my dad said when I found him after the ceremony, gazing quietly at the destroyed sanctuary, not wanting to leave, wondering if even the trees on the property would be chopped down. (That depends on who buys the land, I’m told.)

I listened as Dad recalled all of his school buddies — including several local legends —  who grew up in that neighborhood and had spent countless hours at that church.

I felt tears too.

But my tears were mostly of rage. Dozens of reporters, editors, columnists and news directors in our city have done a damn lousy job by this church!

I guess I know the power of journalism too well. It’s frustrating to realize the pain that can come about when the craft is done poorly.

It shouldn’t be just a fantasy that  my father could have been surrounded by many of his old friends at that ceremony,  all of them standing emotionally before reporters and microphones,  telling great tales of their childhood in the neighborhood and giving editors material their staffs can expound upon for weeks.

But that is just a fantasy.

Our local media quit talking about the church less than a week after the fire. So I’m sure that news of its death (if it ever reaches them) will be a surprise to thousands. In fact, I’ll bet  that some of Dad’s old friends are still halfway expecting to hear about Oak Park’s grand re-opening in 2012, maybe even halfway planning to attend.

And here’s something even more infuriating that my years of journalism taught me: Oak Park Church didn’t necessarily have to close at all.

Had anyone in our local media bothered to inquire, even a little, about the church after they fire, they would have quickly heard that the local Methodists were far from unanimous about its future. There were a myriad of ideas for the property circulating across the town, but all of them were hurriedly conceived and insecurely financed. (What else could be expected on such short notice?) As none of the ideas seemed likely to catch on over the summer, church leaders finally decided upon the wisest decision under the circumstances:  close the church, sell the property, and merge the membership with another local congregation (which happens to be my church, St. Luke’s United Methodist).

Here I go fantasizing again:

Had reporters been in attendance at some of the open-to-the-public meetings about Oak Park over the summer, they would certainly have heard some of these ideas. And, just a mention two of any of them might have brought support from many others in the city.

Alas, back in real life, it’s difficult for a city to show support for ideas it has never heard about.

I can hear the overworked yeomen of our local newsrooms now: “Well, why didn’t anyone with the church just give us a call to tell us what was up?”

It’s true that folks involved with this story could have done a better job of pushing their own ideas upon the media. I happen to be one of those people, and I’m sure it would have taken just a press-release and a phone call or two to get a good bit of attention for my idea that Oak Park’s old school building be restored and re-opened as a school and community center.

But journalism, at least the way I learned it, isn’t supposed to work like that. In fact, I had an editor or two who used to send press releases directly to the trash. “No thanks! I’ll decide what’s news,” one used to say.

I guess I took my ethics classes too seriously. I didn’t call the local media  about my idea because  I didn’t want to unduly influence the discussion about the church’s future. (I’m not even an Oak Park member, after all.) I trusted that the church’s protocols would lead to the wisest decision.

And, unfortunately, they did.

But I know those protocols would have allowed for a different conclusion had the media seen fit to cover this great story properly. If only they had been given complete information, our city’s residents would have found a way to re-build that church and bring to life some of the wonderful ideas that the fire had inspired. I’m confident of that.  It’s happened many times before.

I  guess I need to stop fantasizing and come to terms with these two senseless deaths in our city. Journalism and this church are both gone. I just need to get over it.

But before I do, please indulge me this one last grief stricken story:

When I heard the date and time of Oak Park’s final ceremony (which had been eminent for weeks), I almost decided to see my ethical stubbornness through to the end. I planned to not say a word to the local media about the ceremony, to just be content to let the church die a quiet death, entirely unannounced.

But the thought proved too much for me as I saw how eager my father was to attend the closing.

Ninety minutes before the ceremony, I called our city’s two television newsrooms and the newspaper. I spoke to one man who seemed grateful for a way to fill his newscast on that slow Sunday, and I have yet to hear back from the others.

The one station did send a crew out and the reporter did a decent job with the story. Grateful that the church’s death was not entirely ignored, I figured I would send out email  links to the story on the station’s website.

But I’ve not yet been able to find the story listed amidst all the others the station has run in recent days.

Such much, even for that fleeting fantasy. I’m off to grieve.

This just in! Big news before I close!

This tragic tale may have a happy ending in store after all.

The man who once edited the Oak Park newsletter is one of those my church is welcoming these day. He and I talked for two hours today about the distressing state of journalism in our city, and we think it’s possible that our church could begin publishing its own Corpus Christi newspaper in 2012.

Update: December 27 — I just stumbled upon this interesting link to the story of a church apparently saved by a small group in suburban Rochester, New York.