Sunday #11 – Trinity Baptist Church, 319 E. Mulberry Ave., San Antonio, TX
Since seeing those beautiful spires atop St. Mary Cathedral in Austin, I’ve been thinking a lot about steeples. Since the name of this blog is Steeple Stretch, you might think I have a fascination for steeples, but no. However, my earliest memory of church is being taught the little hand-play that goes: Here’s the church; here’s the steeple – open the door and see all the people. I loved that little finger manipulation and still enjoy sharing it with any small child that will indulge my silly side.
I find the history of steeples incredibly interesting, and also find it ironic that many church leaders bristle when the steeple’s supposed origin is discussed. Church steeples can be traced back thousands of years to Egypt and pagan worship of phallic obelisks for promises of fertility. Yet, as present day culture is so prone to do, we twist these facts around to suit or own view of things. Yet, should an element once applied to pagan purposes remain marked by its pagan meaning today? Some churches and faiths have sought to answer that and thus church steeples have been removed or never placed in many houses of worship.
Guess that answers that question.
I kind of like these spires on churches, and my view aligns similarly with the viewpoint of today’s culture – steeples are simply a visual testimony that points to Heaven and a reminder to all those who walk within its shadow of God’s calling to love one another. These religious markers that often rise above a town square raise many questions, for which I’ll share a few answers with you now.
Why are steeples mainly white?
In Colonial days, metal was expensive and hard to obtain, so townspeople made them from wood. Of course, anything made of wood was usually whitewashed. If a church had the funds for copper, then it was used; ultimately becoming self-weathering. Since copper has a life expectancy of 70-100 years, maintenance was not an issue, because it simply turned to a green patina. Good news for janitors and church repair budgets.
Why are bells often located in the church steeple?
The height of the steeple helped the sound of bells to travel the greatest distance throughout the community, thus reaching far and wide.
When are church bells rung?
Calls to worship, to mark the time of day, as a wedding peal and occasionally as a solemn funeral rite to mark the passing of a cherished church member.
Why don’t all churches have bells in their steeple?
Electronic carillons have lately been replacing traditional bells previously used by churches. They can digitally recreate the sounds of cast bells.
Some steeples have things on top. Why?
Some churches put crosses, weathervanes or decorative finials atop their steeples. Many of these are for aesthetic reasons, but some also serve as lightening terminals to direct a lightening strike safely to the ground below.
Now on to the real reason for blogging…
Why This Church?
I’m sure you can guess that I did an online search for the San Antonio church with the highest steeple. In doing so, I ran across this article about the restoration of the church’s most recognizable feature from fellow journalist Abe Levy of San Antonio Express News.
It intrigued me, so I decided this is the Baptist church that I would visit. From the website, visitors will see that the church offers both a traditional and a contemporary service in two different locations, but I wanted the more traditional one so I could see the steeple and snap a photo.
Luckily for me, I chose this Sunday, because in today’s service I learned that the congregation would begin remodeling of the church sanctuary this very week.
What I already know about Baptist Churches
After spending 20+ years in the Baptist Church, I know a fair amount, so not much will be new.
Yes, I was running late again. With just two minutes to spare as I turned off Highway 281 onto East Mulberry, I hoped that a new visitor parking spot might be available like it had been at the Crossbridge Church on the start of this SteepleStretch journey. Two blocks later I not only found a visitor parking spot, I found a whole parking lot for visitors. It was my lucky day!
Even though I was a bit rushed to make my way into the sanctuary, roughly three to four people warmly greeted me. I wound my way from the front entrance to enter the sanctuary and take a seat in the most comfortable pews I’ve ever had the pleasure to rest my backside.
From the moment the service began, it was a rather surreal experience for me. The colors, the sanctuary setup and the music flooded me with memories of First Baptist Church of China, First Baptist Church of Nome, First Baptist Church of Beaumont, and First Baptist Church of Corpus Christi – all places where I grew up and spent Sundays worshipping God, via messages delivered from Southern Baptist Ministers.
Unlike those previous churches that I hadn’t stepped into since the early 80s, this one had two overhead camera screens, or more and cameras (okay, well First Baptist Church of Beaumont had cameras and a control room). This church was also much larger. With five sections of pews and a large balcony, this church dwarfed all the Baptist Churches I’d been in previously. However, this one was only about halfway full. Most of the people were in the 40-70 age range with a few young families in the service. I’d say that 95 percent of today’s attendance was Caucasian, but I did see a few African Americans and Hispanics sprinkled around. Most of the men wore suits and ties or dress slacks and shirts. Women ran the gamut from dresses to nicer pantsuits. All in all, a much more dressy crowd, though they don’t hold a candle to Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church.
A teal-blue robed choir sang traditional music from the front of the sanctuary, with a large 9-foot piano just in front of the choir. The pulpit stood squarely in the center of the stage, which seems to be the same location in all Baptist churches. One thing I noted a bit different from most churches – the American flag to the left of the stage and a Christian flag (Rev. Bobby Martin, help me out with this one. It is a Christian flag, right? And not the Texas flag?) Seeing those flags flooded me with memories of Vacation Bible School at FBC of Nome when the flags would be marched in and crossed before Vacation Bible School began. We were likely singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” while this transpired.
Unlike times past, hymnals are not required, even though they can be located in the back of the pews. Now, technology makes it possible to project the words right onto the screen. How on earth do you hit the right pitch without reading music though?
My favorite part of the service was the children’s portion. One lady brought out King Tut – a 14-pound cat that had lost weight and also served God by ministering to the elderly at nursing homes. Go, King TUT! More people should be visiting the elderly, because I’ll be elderly some day.
Dr. Les Hollon, the pastor of Trinity Baptist had just flown in from Greece and had only three hours of sleep, but the audience could not have guessed, if he had not said so. I knew I was in the right place this morning, when he suddenly started talking about the church’s steeple.
Really? How did he know I had written that whole intro on steeples before I got there?
I don’t remember too much of his sermon about “Ephesus: Building People that Last.” Not a fault of his though. I think I was too captivated by past memories. I marveled at how he delivered his entire sermon holding a big thick Bible. I remembered seeing that before from other Baptist ministers, but not in other denominations.
Must be a class required by Southern Baptist Theological Seminaries: Pulpit Preaching without Dropping Your Bible: 101
Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
After the sermon came the Lord’s Supper. Churches should really help visitors learn the differences in how the Lord’s Supper is administered. I noticed that the Baptists pass out the bread and you are supposed to hold it in your hands until the deacons come back to the front and the pastor repeats Christ’s words: Take this in remembrance of me. I asked my friend and business partner about that difference since he was also Baptist. He just said, “Our bread has preservatives; it lasts longer.” Right! I guess the grape juice has preservatives, too, because you wait on drinking that, as well. So since no one else will tell you this inside stuff, now you know. Hold the bread, until Simon says….uh, I mean the pastor says so.
And like all Baptist churches, the offering came at the end of the service instead of mid-way. Then we all said ‘good morning’ to each other, held hands, sang a few verses to some hymns, while a good many people snuck out early. (This surprised me because this was the first service that not only ended in only one hour, but had ended one minute before that hour. These Baptists really need to go worship with the Buddhists for two and a half hours or with Cornerstone Church for an hour and a half. One hour feels like a few minutes after those marathon services.
Post Service Commentary
In some ways, this whole service made me sad. Not that my time within the Baptist Church was unhappy, it’s just that those years were spent with family and close friends that I dearly miss. It’s hard to go back into an environment that brings back so many memories. Hopefully for others, that won’t be the case.
I’ve gotten entirely too comfortable in the past three weeks. First, worshipping with the Presbyterians, then from the comfort of my office chair at VirtualChurch.com, then with the Baptists – I really need to break out of my comfort zone and shake things up a bit. It might be at a Mosque on their Friday Holy Day, because I understand I need to dress modestly, which means covering my whole body from the neck down. I need to do this before the sweltering heat of San Antonio makes me sweat from every pore. But this Friday may be packed, so it might be Pentecostal or Quaker next week. One thing is certain – it’ll be out of my comfort zone next week.