Big Church Through Small Eyes
Early one Memphis morning in the spring of 1960, a northbound 31 Crosstown bus stopped at the intersection of Peabody and Bellevue. A young mother and her four year old son stepped off the bus and quickly walk across the street to make a transfer. Waiting on the corner was a sea of old black ladies dress in white uniforms heading to their domestic worker jobs in the wealthy suburbs of east Memphis. The curious boy turned to his mother and asked, "What is that large beautiful building?". The mother answered, "Why that is St. John's Methodist Church". The four year old then asked, "Mom, can we please go inside and look at the big church?". The mother snapped, "No! We are not allowed to go inside because that church is only for rich white people! Besides, standing outside is the prettiest place in the world to view the church." Then, their eastbound transfer arrived and they quickly found their seats in the rear of the bus.
Over the years, I have driven past St. John's church many times wondering what the interior of the grand old building looks like. I'd visited the Sistine chapel and St. Peter's basilica in Rome, and countless other grand churches across Europe. However, I still did not feel comfortable or welcome entering St. John's church on Peabody. When my wife, Sarah, and I moved back to Memphis in September of 2014, we saw some photos of a St. John's church service posted by our good friend Rebecca Jordan Gienapp. We decided to visit just to see if we would feel welcomed. We were astonished by the enormous love, congeniality, fellowship and hospitality shown to us by the St. John's congregation. After our very first visit, we knew that St. John's was the right church home for us. Each Sunday, I bring toys, snacks, and magic tricks for the children of the church. Several members have asked me why I spend so much time and money on the children. My answer is that I see myself in those kids. Unlike my experience as a rejected four year old in 1960, I just want the little innocent angels such as Daniel, Lola, Ava, Coreen, Arial, Kathryn, Vincent, Christopher, and the other children to grow up feeling confident in themselves and knowing that St. John's is a safe place that welcomes all people. They will also find people there who are kind, loving, encouraging and nurturing.
I would give anything for my late mother, Ida Swiney, to attend a Sunday morning service with me at St. John's. I would turn to her and say, "Do you remember 55 years ago when you said, 'Standing outside was the prettiest place in the world to view the church?' Well you were totally wrong. For it is inside that is the prettiest place in the church to view the world." I am forever grateful that Sarah and I became members of the St. John's family.
May God bless you all,
Alvin Swiney aka The Magic Man