Some time in 1978 or 79, after my parents had moved to Ankeny, Iowa from Omaha, we switched churches. We’d belonged to the United Methodist Church, where I was baptized as an infant, I assume because that’s the church my dad was raised in. That is to say, that is the denomination that held their official membership. Not that we or anyone in my parents’ families really went there much, according to the stories I remember hearing. Still, that was our church affiliation –until we moved to Des Moines.
After the move and a year or two, my parents started driving into Des Moines to go to church on Sunday mornings. We started going to this other, bigger church in Beaverdale, a stately old brick building at the corner of Beaver Ave. and Adams. First Federated Church, it was called. No, not a bank or an insurance company, a church. The church in the late 1970s was in the middle of a huge growth spurt, emerging from its identity as a hippie-friendly congregation with two young pastors into Iowa’s (probably) first megachurch. But this was before all that. Or at least, it was the beginning.
Our Sunday school and children’s church met in what used to be a small grocery store next to the old main church building. That’s where I stumbled into children’s choir on Sunday nights where they were finishing up practicing for Sir Oliver’s Song (I joined too late for that performance, but I got to practice with them) and started going to Wednesday night Awana while my parents went to Navigators’ discipleship classes. Our family climate changed profoundly in those years. God became real to me as a kid somewhere in those years. Church became more than play-dough and Bible stories and became ways to think about the world and things I could do, things I should do because I was a child of God, a kid with Jesus in my heart. We never talked about Jesus being in our hearts or memorized Bible verses at the Methodist church. I remember thinking of that as being very strange once I’d been at Federated a couple years, like the Methodists had hidden something from me. And this church was BIG. Big enough that they bought an old junior high school and remodeled it together to make it into our next church building. January 4, 1980 (yes, I still remember the date), we filed into the “new church” auditorium and dedicated the place. I had no idea then the place this building would have in my heart, because a year or two after that, everything changed.
We moved, back to Glenwood for a few years. We joined a tiny Southern Baptist church plant and went from a Sunday morning with several hundred others and a pastor who didn’t really know our names to a congregation of about a dozen or twenty, depending on the week. There were things I liked about that, but more things I missed. I missed Awana. I missed the Christian school where I spent my second grade year, before we’d moved. When Federated moved into that old school building, so did the Christian school, and that first year there was my first year at Des Moines Christian, 1980-81. I spent about 90 minutes or so on the bus each day commuting –that’s how important my parents thought me going there was, and I loved the school. Loved that our teacher was free to talk about God, that people really seemed to care for each other. But then, like I said, we moved away.
And then, after a few years, we moved back. In the summer of 1985, I joined youth group at Federated, along with a lot of the kids I barely remembered from Sunday school back then. I doubt any of them remembered me. Youth group back then met in the gym, a hundred or so folding chairs gathered and for the first while, the high school and the junior high were together. I can’t remember if it was White Heart (our youth group pastor’s favorite Christian rock band) or Petra on the boom box that morning, but it was very, very different. I felt like I’d crossed into a whole new chapter of everything that morning. Coming back to Des Moines, back to Federated, back to Des Moines Christian felt like a dream come true –and it literally was for me. I found a place in with the youth group kids, maybe even moreso than with the kids in my class at school. They were my closer friends, the people I hung out with on the weekends and Wednesday nights.
And things continued in the vein of explosive growth. This was during the dawn of the Willow Creek megachurch movement, and we, at the time, were Des Moines’ very first megachurch. Our services were televised, our Easter musicals were sold-out affairs. When we built a brand new addition and huge 4,000 seat sanctuary on to that old junior high school, we proudly identified ourselves as the largest church in Iowa. On Easter and Christmas, we put on better-than-community-theater quality musicals, with acting and choreography and contemporary songs and the occasional laser light show or Jesus descending from the ceiling. Our youth choir, in my sophomore year, premiered a brand-new, not-even-in-print musical for a publisher out in California. We students wrote the choreography ourselves, with guidance from our music pastor and a couple talented parents. Our moms sewed costumes. The maintenance crew built sets. It was a Big Deal. Big enough, I learned, that though I hadn’t been in choir in high school for one year, I had enough voice knowledge and musical training to make it into chorale during my freshman year of college on just what I’d learned at church.
More than that, it was where I belonged. I never quite fit in at school, but on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, I knew where I fit. I guess I figured it would always stay that way. That I’d always have that to return to, that we’d bump into each other once we joined the college Sunday school class and married and had kids of our own.
But that didn’t really happen. In my senior year, just after our pastors had celebrated their anniversary of ministering together, just after our church’s 75th anniversary, everything fell apart. Our church split. My family left, ostensibly for other reasons I didn’t understand, not due to the split, but I still felt the ripping. I had friends still at Federated, some who left, some who stayed. But those incredible youth group years were pretty much over for me. I spent my senior year at a church where I had to start over again, and then I went to college, unsure even of where I belonged on the Sundays when I came back home. Federated wasn’t my church home any more, and neither was the church my parents went to, really. And during my college years, like a lot of students, I wound up tearing what I believed down to its foundations and rebuilding it again –stronger. But a lot of what I’d left out were the things that I’d learned at Federated. Still, I always saw those years as important, as foundational. There was a part of that place that would always be home to me.
But then, home wasn’t home any more. My youth group scattered, moved, grew up. Pastors came and left. The church shrank from the 1,000-plus families when I was there in high school to a congregation of a few hundred. That amazing 4,000 seat sanctuary became a burden to those who stayed and had to pay it off. Things fell apart, materially and otherwise. Things got fixed, materially and otherwise. The Christian school, my alma mater, moved across town to a new building.
So many good memories bound up in that place. But the remnant of several hundred as late have decided that the building no longer fits the church that inhabits it, and so, this Sunday, this morning, they held their last service there.
I knew this was coming, and so on one of my last trips home to Des Moines, I drove out to the church, to my old school, and wandered the halls for a little closure, I guess. Nothing, of course, was much the same. Even the smells were different. The smell of pencil shavings and floor wax was gone, now that the school had moved out. Not many people walking around. I was happy to discover that a few classroom doors had been left open, so I could go in and see that the place I remembered really was gone. The “new building,” the part that was added on when I was in high school was shuttered. It was closed off intentionally a year or two ago and left unused due to the expense of heating, cooling, and maintaining the unnecessary square footage. For the last few years, the congregation has held services in the original auditorium, something that alone seems too strange for me to understand.
But, things change. And a little like my husband, whose entire neighborhood in Peru has been turned over to the government and the reclamation of the jungle now that the task of Bible translation is done there, I can’t go “home” there again, either.
Some might call Federated’s history a cautionary tale. I imagine that from what I have heard of the difficult years since I’ve left Des Moines, there might be some for whom a move from that building feels a bit like leaving an old haunted house. I’m sure that for those that remain and some that have left, not all the memories that building contains are happy ones. I remember the theme during that 75th anniversary celebration: “Found Faithful.” I remember thinking even as a teenage kid how proud that sounded. The kind of proud that rings in your head like chewing tinfoil, like something’s struck the wrong note. The split, ironically, happened a couple weeks after that “Found Faithful” celebration. What I think we all discovered after, particularly those who remained, was that it wasn’t we, the congregation, that were found faithful, but God Himself, who carried that church through the years that followed.
First Federated Church as it was, after today, is a part of history. The church has renamed itself “The Mission,” along with this cross-town move to another, smaller building. I can’t go back to the old building and wander the halls again. I won’t be able to show my kids where I went to high school, where I graduated, where I hid during the New Years’ Eve games of hide-and-seek in the darkened building. Oh, and that old building at Beaver and Adams, where I was baptized (again) at age eight –that was hit by lightning in the years we were in Glenwood and burned down. There are apartments there where the old church once stood.
But I have the memories, and I have the building stones of faith that I was given there. Some stones got left behind along the way, some stones have crumbled because life and my walk with God has proven that they weren’t solid. Some have held. Still, the part in my soul that knows that God wastes nothing knows that for all the things I might have had to re-learn or un-learn, the things I learned and experienced in those years were all necessary to bring me along to where I am now. And for that, I am thankful for a God who, unlike his people, is always found faithful.
**The photo at the top is from the original Beaver and Adams church (not sure if it predates that, but it might). It was moved from the old building and remounted on the Franklin Ave. property. Behind the sign is a wall of the old junior high building (the gym, if I remember correctly) and a wall from the new auditorium addition.