The Church for Honest Sinners

THE young man who greeted me cheerfully in the lobby of the hotel in Warburton, my native town, and who handed me a card setting forth the hours of service at St. John’s Church, evidently assumed that I was a commercial traveler. I was in no wise offended by his mistake, as I sincerely admire the heralds of prosperity and sit with them at meat whenever possible. I am a neurologist by profession, but write occasionally, and was engaged just then in gathering material for a magazine article on occupational diseases. A friend in the Department of Labor had suggested Warburton as a likely hunting ground, as children employed there in a match-factory were constantly being poisoned, and a paintfactory also was working dire injury to its employees.

‘I’m afraid,’ I replied to the engaging young representative of St. John’s Men’s League, ‘ that my religious views would n’t be tolerated at St. John’s. But I thank you, just the same.’

I had been baptized in St. John’s and remembered it well from my youth. On my way uptown from the station I had noted its handsome new edifice of impeccable Gothic.

‘We have the best music in town, and our minister is a live wire. He knows how to preach to men, — he’s cut big slices out of the other churches.’

‘Gives the anxious sinner a clean bill of health, does he?’

‘Well, most of the leading citizens go there now,’ he answered, politely ignoring my uncalled-for irony. ‘Men who never went to church before: the men who do things in Warburton. Our minister’s the best preacher in the diocese. His subject this morning is “The Prodigal Son.”'

I felt guiltily that the topic might have been chosen providentially to mark my return; and it occurred to me that this might be a good chance to see Warburton in its best bib and tucker. However, having planned to spend the morning in the slum which the town had acquired with its prosperity, — and the slum of the small city has little to learn from Whitechapel, — I hardened my heart against the young solicitor, in spite of his unobtrusive and courteous manner of extending the invitation.

‘You represent a saint’s church,’ I remarked, glancing at the card. ‘I travel a good deal and I have n’t found a church specially designed for sinners like me. I’m uncomfortable among the saints. I’m not quarreling with your church or its name, but I’ve long had a feeling that our church nomenclature needs revision. Still, that’s a personal matter. You’ve done your duty by me; and I’d be glad to come if I had n’t another engagement.’

The pages of a Chicago morning newspaper that lay across my knees probably persuaded him that I was lying. However, after a moment’s hesitation he sat down beside me on the long leathern bench.

‘That’s funny, what you said about a church for sinners, — but we have one right here in Warburton; odd you never heard of it! It was written up in the newspapers a good deal. It’s just across the street from St. John’s on Water Street.’

I recalled now that I had seen a strange church in my walk to the hotel, but the new St. John’s had so absorbed my attention that I had passed it with only a glance. It came back to me indistinctly that it was a white wooden structure, and that boards were nailed across its pillared portico as though to shut out the public while repairs were making.

‘Saints excluded, sinners only need apply?’

He nodded, and looked at me queerly, as though, now that I had broached the matter, he meditated telling me more. It was ten o’clock and half a dozen church bells clanged importunately as a background for Adeste Fideles from St. John’s chimes.

‘“The Church for Honest Sinners” might suit you, only it’s closed — closed for good, I guess,’ he remarked, again scrutinizing me closely.

He played nervously with a pack of cards like the one with which he had introduced himself. Other men, quite as indubitably transients as I, were lounging down from breakfast, hugging their newspapers, or seeking the barber-shop with large leisure-enforcing cigars clenched in their teeth. Something in my attitude toward the church for which he was seeking worshipers seemed to arrest him. He was a handsome, clear-eyed, wholesomelooking young fellow, whose life had doubtless been well sheltered from evil; there was something refreshingly naive about him. I liked his straightforward way of appealing to strangers; a bank-teller, perhaps, or maybe a clerk in the office of one of the manufacturing companies whose indifference to the welfare of their laborers I had come to investigate. Not the most grateful of tasks, this of passing church advertisements about in hotel lobbies on Sunday mornings. It requires courage, true manliness. My heart warmed to him as I saw a number of men eyeing us from the cigarstand, evidently amused that the young fellow had cornered me. A member of the group — a stout gentleman in checks who represented a distillery — held one of the cards in his hand and covertly pointed with it in our direction.

‘If there’s a story about the sinners’ church I’d like to hear it,’ I remarked encouragingly. ‘ It seemed to be closed — I suppose they ’re enlarging it to accommodate the rush.’

‘Well, no; hardly that,’ he replied soberly. ‘ It was built as an independent scheme — none of the denominations would stand for it of course.’

‘Why the “of course”?’

‘Well,’ he smiled, ‘the idea of sin is n’t exactly popular, is it? And besides everybody is n’t wicked; we can’t assume that; there are plenty of good people. There’s good in all men,’ he added, as though quoting.

‘I can’t quarrel with that. But how about this Church for Honest Sinners? Tell me the story.’

‘Well, it’s a queer sort of story, and as you ’re a stranger and I’m not likely to meet you again, I’ll tell you all I know. It was built by a woman.’ He crossed his legs and looked at the clock. ‘She was rich as riches go in a town like this. And she was different from other people. She was left a widow with about a hundred thousand dollars, and she set apart half of it to use in helping other people. She would n’t do it through societies or churches; she did it all herself. She was n’t very religious, — not the way we use the word, — not the usual sort of religious woman that works on guilds and gets up oyster suppers. She was n’t above asking the factory hands to her house now and then, and was always helping the under dog. She was splendid, — the finest woman that ever lived; but of course people thought her queer.’

‘Such people are generally considered eccentric,’ I commented.

‘The business men disliked her because they said she was spoiling the poor people and putting bad notions into their heads.’

‘I dare say they did! I can see that a woman like that would be criticized.’

‘Then when they tore down old St. John’s and began building the new church, she said she’d build a church after her own ideas. She spent twentyfive thousand dollars building that church you noticed in Water Street and called it the Church for Honest Sinners. She meant to put a minister in who had some of her ideas about religion, but right there came her first blow. As her church was n’t tied up to any of the denominations she could n’t find a man willing to take the job; but I suppose the real trouble was that nobody wanted to mix up with a scheme like that; it was too radical — didn’t seem exactly respectable. It’s easy, I suppose, when there’s a big whooping crowd — Billy Sunday and that sort of thing — and the air is full of emotionalism, to get people to the mourners’ bench to confess that they ’re miserable sinners. But you can see for yourself that it takes nerve to walk into the door of a church that’s for sinners only — seems sort o’ foolish!

‘ I should n’t be telling you about this if I had n’t seen that you had the same idea the builder of that church had: that there’s too much of the saint business and general smugness about our churches, and that one that frankly set out to welcome sinners would play, so to speak, to capacity. You might think that all the Cains, Judases, and Magdalens would feel that here at last was a door of Christian hope flung open for them. But it won’t work that way — at least it did n’t in this case. I suppose there are people in this town right now, all dressed up to go to church, who’ve broken all the ten commandments without feeling they were sinners; and of course the churches can’t go after sin the way they used to, with hell and brimstone; the people won’t have it. You ’ve been thinking that a church set apart for sinners would appeal to people who’ve done wrong and are sorry about it, but it does n’t; and that’s why that church on Water Street’s boarded up, — not for repairs as you imagined, but because only one person has ever crossed the threshold. It was the idea of the woman who built it that the door should stand open all the time, night and day; and the minister, if she could have found one to take the job, would have been on the lookout to help the people who went there.’

This was rather staggering. Perhaps, I reflected, it is better after all to suffer the goats to pasture, with such demureness as they can command, among the sheep.

‘I suppose,’ I remarked, ‘that the founder of the church was satisfied with her experiment — she had n’t wholly wasted her money, for she had found the answers to interesting questions as to human nature — the vanity of rectitude, the pride of virtue, the consolations of hypocrisy.’

He looked at me questioningly, with his frank innocent eyes, as though estimating the extent to which he might carry his confidences.

‘Let me say again that I should n’t be telling you all this if you did n’t have her ideas — and without ever knowing her! She lived on the corner below the church, where she could watch the door. She watched it for about two years, day and night, without ever seeing a soul go in, and people thought that she’d lost her mind. And then, one Sunday morning when the whole town — all her old friends and neighbors — were bound for church, she came out of her house alone and walked straight down to that church for sinners she had built, and in at the door.

‘You see,’ he said, rising quickly, as though recalling his obligations to St. John’s Men’s League, ‘she was the finest woman in town, — the best and noblest woman that ever lived! They found her at noon lying dead in the church. The failure of her plan broke her heart; and that made it pretty hard — for her family — everybody.’

He was fingering his cards nervously; and I did not question the sincerity of the emotion his face betrayed.

‘It is possible,’ I suggested, ‘that she had grown morbid over some sin of her own, and had been hoping that others would avail themselves of the hospitality of a church that was frankly open to sinners. It might have made it easier for her.’

He smiled with his childlike innocence and faith.

‘Not only not possible,’ he caught me up, with quick dignity; ‘but incredible! She was my mother.’