This morning, a Sunday, I went and gave blood at a small church and school in Beach Park, Illinois. I wasn’t familiar with the location. As I pulled in, the parking lot was full of activity. I saw the blood center van parked next to the one of the wings of the building. There was a group of people walking in a doorway just past the van; I followed them only to find I had entered the church. I asked an older man wearing black with a white collar where the blood drive was, he very patiently pointed me to a door on the far side of the chapel. It was only after absorbing his directions that I realized he was the pastor, standing in the doorway to greet his congregation. Suffice to say, I’m not a regular church-goer, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a house of worship. I’m wondering, in hind sight, if I should have removed the baseball cap I was wearing.
Following the pastor’s directions, I found my way to the doorway he’d described, which was in the attached school, and upon opening it, I entered another sacred and holy room that I hadn’t been in for years. I found myself in a school gymnasium, not the huge high school gymnasiums that double as auditoriums, but rather, the small and humble and traditional elementary school gymnasium. I’ve always loved these places and have fond memories of them, from my own childhood to the times coaching my son’s basketball teams.
It was all recognizable, the folded up three rows of wooden bleachers, the boundary lines and free throw lines and the lanes of the basketball courts marked out on the floor, the rims and nets and backboards, and the darkened scoreboard high on the wall. I remembered the stale but somehow not unpleasant smell of sweat that hangs in the inadequately ventilated air during a game or a scrimmage. I could hear the holy sounds that haunt every gymnasium, the echo of a bouncing basketball, the swish when a shot hits nothing but net, and that most sacred sound of all, the sound of stopping and starting tennis shoes squeaking on the floor.
To some, it probably says a lot that a gymnasium has more meaning to me than a chapel. I would agree, but I think I might draw a different conclusion. For me, basketball courts and gymnasiums, along with baseball diamonds and backyard football fields, were great places to learn important rules and truths. I learned about teamwork and sportsmanship (good and bad) and pushing yourself beyond your limitations. I learned about love, the love of the games, and the importance of community, for without other players, there was no way to express that love. I learned about faith, faith that if thrown to, I could catch that pass, or the faith that an open teammate could make the winning shot.
Most important, they gave me a reason and a place to run and jump and release my pent up energies. Now, with my physical capabilities in rapid decline, I understand their real value, and that these places provided more nourishment to my soul than sitting in a pew listening to incomprehensible sermons ever could.