“An annual ice-cream social brings friends and former members from many communities for an evening of fellowship and fun.”
—Moniteau County Missouri History, vol. 1 (1980)
Well, my friends, that statement in a county history book hardly begins to describe the scene on August 27, 2011, at a plain white church on Route K southeast of California, Missouri.
We went there with my folks and met up with cousins and my aunt and uncle, so we all arrived early in order to sit together. This meant we got to watch as carloads of people gradually arrived and each picnic table was filled. Here at this country church, we witnessed the true meaning of “gathering.” There is no “town” here, but there is definitely community.
A little about the history of the Salem United Church of Christ: the congregation was started in 1848 by a group of German immigrant families who gathered to worship even before their own homes were completely built.
They called their church the “North Moreau Evangelical Church.” As with many other German Evangelical churches in Missouri, they are now merged with the Reformed churches, the Congregational churches, and others to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).
Until 1889, the Salem Church shared its pastor with the congregation in California. By 1922, with the latter town’s growth, the shared pastor was based in California and supplied Salem, an arrangement that still exists today.
I think it’s pretty safe to conceptualize the early German Evangelical churches as being stripped-down Protestant churches for German-speaking immigrants. In other words, being Protestant, they shrugged off the trappings and hierarchies of Catholicism, but they also declined the regulations and expectations of the Lutheran Church, as well. What was left for Protestant Germans? In the American Midwest, one answer was “simple churches like this one.”
After seeing the gloriously decorated interiors of this region’s Catholic churches, the simplicity of the Salem Church is astonishing. The sanctuary is functional: There are pews, hymnals, and Bibles. There’s an altar, a pulpit, and a place for the minister to sit. The altar bears a cross, a few candles, and trays for offerings and/or communion. There’s a piano and a few other tables, decorated nicely, but not lavishly.
My dad (who knows much, much more about this stuff than I do) pointed out that the framed pictures of Jesus were probably not present in the early years of the church—again, out of a desire for simplicity.
And yet there is a great deal of meaning in these objects; this is a congregation that treasures its long history, and the church’s material possessions hold significance for those who know that history. For instance, the antique chandeliers in the sanctuary are the old kerosene chandeliers that have been renovated and converted to electricity. And the pews! In 1947, each family cut and donated logs that were made into the pews—a wonderful project for the congregation’s centennial in 1948.
So these aren’t “just” lights; these aren’t “just” pews. They represent history and continuity.
And as with many, many little white-painted country churches, the cemetery is right by the church, clearly visible out the windows as you sit in the pews. There are big old trees; there are tombstones with dates from the 1700s.
It’s always a fascinating and sobering thing to wander around in cemeteries like this and piece together family relationships and family tragedies.
There’s so much history here. I could go on, for instance, about how the original log church still stands right next door, was used as a German school, and now is a storage and multipurpose space for the church—but I’ll let you learn about that for yourself sometime. We need to move on to the ice cream!
Actually, it was much more than ice cream. There was enough food there to make a light dinner. They served brats and hot dogs (with all the trimmings); chicken salad sandwiches; and ham sandwiches made with locally made Burger’s ham. There were chips and sodas and ice tea, paper plates and plastic cutlery.
The trays intrigued me—they were from all over the place. They were old and mismatched, clearly donated. Some are no doubt collector’s items that would bring twenty bucks apiece on eBay. And it was really fun to eat off a tray that had originally come from Marineland of the Pacific (of all places). Sue’s tray celebrated the glorious state of North Dakota—someone decades ago must have donated a complete series of all 48 U.S. states!
You might be wondering why I’m not showing you pictures of ice cream, but it should be obvious: You just don’t sit around and photograph homemade ice cream; you eat it!
Indeed, as we went through the line, my cousin David looked askance at me as I added a few multicolored sprinkles to my ice cream: “How can you even think of putting toppings on homemade ice cream??”
He had a point. But I kind of wondered why there should be a “rule” about it. Do we need catechizing over ice cream toppings? . . . But then I was raised in a UCC church and he’s a Lutheran, and maybe that’s the difference right there! We laughed about it; variety is the spice of life!
And that’s the point of all this gathering and celebrating, isn’t it? We get together to share fellowship and fun, enjoying the fact that some of us like sprinkles or chocolate syrup on our ice cream, and some of us just came for the bratwurst with kraut.
And even if some of us are part of an extended family-and-friends network while others are new-friends-we-just-hadn’t-met-before, who have never even driven down Route K . . . we’re all welcome to share in the fun of the cakewalk.
Hey: In reading about this church, I learned that “Christmas programs have been omitted only twice—once during the Civil War, the other during the 1918 flu epidemic” (ibid.). Something tells me this church’s Christmas program would be well worth attending! Meanwhile, I think you can depend on the ice cream social taking place each year on the fourth Saturday of August! Plug it into your calendar now, so you won’t miss it next year.
A big thank-you to Uncle Richard and Aunt Carole, who knew about this event and invited us all to attend. They also gave me some pages photocopied from Moniteau County history books—to help with this post, which they correctly anticipated I might want to write!
Another thank-you to Sue, for sharing her photos with me. The good ones in this post are hers; the so-so ones are mine!
Thanks, especially, to our family members who joined us at Salem Church. You know what Grandma S. would say: “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be!”