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By Don Walter
From his column A Minute With Don

The Odd Fellows Hall/grocery which served as the first home to Ottumwa, Iowa, Trinity Church of the Nazarene.

The relationship between our sense of smell and memory is fascinating. After some online reading, I learned a human’s sense of smell operates differently than our other senses. It seems smells are processed in such a way as to be routed more directly to brain areas associated with memory and emotion.

Maybe that’s why the smell of apples and stale cigars reminds me of my earliest experiences of church. I should explain. When I was less than two years old, my parents relocated. As members of the Church of the Nazarene, they were hoping to find a similar congregation in their new community. Fortunately, one was being started not far from our new home, so that’s where we went.

Like many in those days, our congregation didn’t have a building, so we gathered in a second floor meeting room, accessed by a worn wooden staircase. The ceilings were high, and the floors were hardwood. What made the space affordable was that we shared it with another group.

Our co-tenant was a chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. While I’m not aware of all the practices of this organization, its members obviously did smoke a fair number of cigars. And the particular body with whom we shared space didn’t spend much time cleaning up after meetings. So, on Sunday mornings as the Nazarenes arrived for worship, spruce up was required which included discarding cigar remains. Unfortunately, the odor of the prior evening’s indulgence lingered.

However, the fragrance of fresh apples combined with cigar stench is the real trigger for my memory. Our congregation happened to be located on the second floor of a neighborhood grocery store where the vents channeled air from the produce section carrying with it the scent of apples. I’m pretty sure the Upper Room where the disciples gathered didn’t have the olfactory imprint of ours.

I’m pretty sure the Upper Room where the disciples gathered didn’t have the olfactory imprint of ours.

These memories from my childhood are good. They come with connections to my family being together with others who were exuberantly engaged in fellowship and spirited worship of God.

Those who have been around the Church of the Nazarene for any length of time probably have similar stories. While in more recent years many of our congregations have been blessed with buildings and nice facilities, it wasn’t always so. Our history is rich with stories of meetings in store fronts, rented halls, schools, and even tents. Many of us who grew up in the middle of the past century worshiped in any number of unusual locations. That may not be a bad thing. In fact, as we consider the economic realities of our world, we may find that what we consider “traditional” settings are a thing of the past.

Property expenses are significant in parts of our nation. Congregations that once were able to support fine facilities now find themselves confronted by demographic changes that require them to rethink their model of property ownership. And as new congregations are started, it may be difficult for them to pursue their vision for ministry and support a physical complex.

A few years ago I had the privilege of dedicating my youngest granddaughter. The congregation didn’t have the resources for a building, but they could manage the rental of a room above a complex that was used as an office during the week. That evening, the sacredness and significance of the moment was in no way diminished by the surroundings where we gathered.

As our culture continues to change, there’s no telling what will one day trigger memories of church. It might be the toasty cheese aroma from a Papa John's or the tang of last night’s cups in the trash of an apartment party room. Whatever the stimuli, it will be okay as long as they are reminded that someone cared enough to make them part of the faith community and introduced them to the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits for the Church of the Nazarene.

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