Where We Live

“The past is good to learn from but not to live in.”
–Karen Salmonsohn


In the space that has served as the church Parlor for decades, the cases on the back wall sit empty. Along with all the room furnishings, the historical display has been removed as this area becomes part of the renovation project that began in November of 2015. 

A few weeks earlier anyone who visited or met in the Parlor could peruse a display of information and artifacts recounting portions of the history of First Methodist Midland. Some people spent time carefully examining each case; others hardly gave them a glance. Any regular member probably knew the materials were there even if they never looked at them in detail. Like other long-term artifacts (such as the Apostles’ portraits), they had become a part of the background. After all (like the Apostles), the cases have been there for quite a while. For a dozen years in fact.

In 1999, as the twentieth century drew to a close, Church Historian Frances Atwater dreamed of displaying some of the historical information and memorabilia she discovered as she excavated various old files, boxes, and cabinets about the church. Her personal church history reached back to the age of eleven, when her family moved to Midland. Frances was an active church member from the beginning and remained so throughout her lifetime. 

To help advance her cause, Frances enlisted church member Gayle Dodson, who she knew had her own personal memorabilia collection. ” I was delighted and accepted!” Gayle wrote in an April 2003
Tower Times 
article. “We spent two years going through boxes that she had organized. As we dug, she shared stories of First United Methodist Church and gave me a lot of information on our church’s history.”

Frances and Gayle took their idea of a historical display to the Reverend Lane Boyd, who was Senior Pastor at that time, and other members of the church staff. They quickly gained support and a financial campaign for an Archives/History Fund was underway.

In 2002, they reached their goal of $11,500 and Rod Stephenson constructed the cases in the Parlor in January 2003.

Sadly, Frances was not there to see her dream completed. She died of cancer in April of 2002. But she passed away knowing her vision was quickly moving toward reality. 

Gayle Dodson oversaw the layout of the historical display, which included photographs, commemorative items, historic records, Bibles and rare artifacts that had survived the years. By the spring of 2003, the display was completed. It even included a section honoring two special former church members, then President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Welch Bush. Laura’s connection to this church went back to her baptism here. Years later, George and Laura had married in the Glass Chapel.

As she viewed the completed exhibit, Gayle recalled Frances. “At first sight of the finished project, my eyes filled with tears as I thought to myself, ‘Oh Frances, I wish you were here to see this.’ Of course she was there in spirit and jumping with joy as I was.”

Twelve years later, those cases sit empty as new dreams have re-imagined how we will use this space. By the very nature of renovation, some things have to go to make way for the new. The history cases are victims of that, but not the history.

For those, like Gayle and myself, who care about such things, all the items in the display cases have been securely stored away, along with information about them, as well as a set of photographs documenting the display itself.

Like Frances, I have dug through numerous church closest and storage spaces, excavating old documents and artifacts and struggling with what to keep and what to let go. I have come across traces of Frances’ trail (and Gayle’s as well. I
have even found a few things they missed. In addition, several church members have brought me items from their own collections or from older family members who have passed on.

I sift. I sort. I make my best judgments regarding what to preserve. Because, as Karen Salmonsohn reminds us, we cannot live in the past. Rather, if we are faithful Christians we are always building for the future.

History is a story we tell ourselves in the present that help explains who we are and how we arrived at the present moment. While its subject is the past–what actually happened–its true focus is the future. Perhaps the most important statement made by the empty cases is not that our history is lost but that we continue to work on new chapters of that history. 

Museums honor the past by preserving all sorts of items from annihilation but it has been said that museums are where things go to die. That means they lose their original function and value. An old treadle sewing machine becomes a relic instead of an vital part of family life, for example.

We are not a museum. We are a church, where people come to find new life.

As old corridors are opened up, as old walls come down, as Apostle paintings and artifacts are stored away, we can certainly allow ourselves time for a little nostalgia for their passing. But only a few moments. Then, we should begin our work in helping construct the next piece of the story of First Methodist Midland.

“The past is good to learn from but not to live in.”
                                                            –Karen Salmonsohn

–Jim Collett, Church Historian