The Balm of Proximity: Churchyard Haunting Past, Pandemic and Potential
I’ve heard other people’s churchyard memories from childhood that involve hide and seek among tombstones, the sound of bells, or processions of saints, palms, and monstrances. The ecclesiastical architecture of my childhood probably can be best described as “Baptist Bunker;” I have vivid memories of joining forces with Sunday School classmates to find ways into and out of window wells significantly deeper than a kindergartener is tall. After some stints at megachurches and a nondenominational “Bible Church” that met in a funeral home, my parents settled on a yellow-brick-with-glass-blocks-as-necessary church built into a hillside five miles from our house, to which we all traveled by Volvo station wagon at least three times a week through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
By the age of 10, I’d been steeped in American Evangelical Baptist Bunker culture long enough to know that this utilitarian, even sepulchral, design was a very specific gesture. My childhood Baptist Bunker and thousands others like it proclaim a Christianity that rejects physical grandeur (“which moth and rust destroy”) and outward appearance (“for the Lord looks upon the heart”). If our congregation was going to communicate something to the surrounding neighborhood, they would—and did—do so through plastic lettering on a buzzing fluorescent sign, in plain English. Not for them such scripturally unsound fripperies as stained glass or colonnade or belltower.
Like so much of Protestantism, many of these architectural principles were framed in explicit opposition to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Where older Christianities were superficial and idolatrous, we, the Bunker Baptists, were committed to The Inner Life. Look! See our peeling linoleum and sanctity for yourself! The irony, I hope, quickly becomes apparent.
Perhaps precisely because of the warnings about Catholicism, and despite all the time I spent at my own church-bunker, the splendor of St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church, one block from the house I grew up in, exerted a physical pull on my body, drawing me to wander its grounds nearly every day from the time I was ten years old until well into high school.
St Ann’s is enormous in every direction: parochial school buildings, playing fields, rectory, and parking lots cover more than six inner-ring suburban acres, and the sandstone belltower rises eight stories to its fluted silver dome. In all seasons of childhood and early adolescence, I wandered its interior warren of sandstone walls and hidden gardens, or circled round to see its Greek Revival bulk against the sky.
I especially loved to go to St. Ann’s churchyard on winter evenings in my early adolescence when the tower was floodlit from all sides. Feeling swallowed by the silence of the building complex, alone in its shadow, was a satisfying embodiment of that common adolescent experience of invisibility and outsiderness.
I cringe at how often I indulged in these evenings of gothic melodrama, imagining myself a ghost in the (100% grave-free) churchyard: wandering the shadows, longing for human connection, yet (thank God) meeting no one. In my less insufferable moments, I’d stand at the belltower’s base looking up through floodlit snowfall, pretending the tower was a rocket, blasting me at warp speed through galaxies of stars.
Twenty years later, and I’m back in St. Ann’s churchyard. My wife and I moved to Cleveland, Ohio from New York City a few years ago and bought a house mere blocks from the house I grew up in, close enough to St. Ann’s that I can still parse a morning by the pealing of its bells.
The past two years are the first since being back, though, that I’ve returned to wander St. Ann’s grounds almost every week. This time less because I’m running away from home (although I felt as cooped up in 2020 as I remember feeling at age 14) and more because I’m getting as close as I can to some semblance of “going to church.” I’ve darkened the doors of any church only a very few times in the last two years. The airborne nature of COVID-19 has made church interiors—any building interiors—a serious threat of contagion.
In spring 2020, Ohio Governor Mike Dewine took strong action against almost every kind of indoor gathering; stores, schools, museums, and festivals were all ordered to close before the end of March. But for indoor religious gatherings, the government stopped short of any mandate. Ohio, like so many state governments, put on a tortured performance of addressing a public health emergency while not desecrating that most ideologically cherished and deeply misunderstood constitutional right: Freedom of Religion. With Easter 2020 on the horizon, Dewine spent much of his March 28, 2020 press conference pleading with Ohioans’ better angels: “We’re not going to tell you not to do it, but…I just can’t imagine anyone would want to take that risk.”
While most denominations and dioceses, including my own, the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, called for closure of church buildings and in-person gatherings as early as mid-March, plenty of nondenominational Protestant congregations, true to their iconoclastic, anti-establishment roots, not only wanted to take the risk that Gov. Dewine warned about, but declared doing so an act of faith.
On March 23, 2020, a pastor at the Solid Rock megachurch outside Cincinnati told congregants massed in the church’s sanctuary that people worried about public health would be better served protesting outside of Planned Parenthood offices than avoiding church gatherings. Another church in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, hosted a large gathering in June 2020 that, by mid-August, was making international news due to the diabolically efficient contagion vector created when one COVID-19-positive man attended a service and infected more than 50 fellow churchgoers, who themselves infected another couple dozen, leading to an outbreak of almost 100 known cases in that community.
While the idea of conservative, anti-masker, midwestern megachurches as COVID superspreaders fits liberal, secular stereotypes, a July 8, 2020 New York Times article documented coronavirus outbreaks both “in churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.” Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert from Emory University, was quoted as saying that everything about church as most of us know it—“a lot of people in a closed space…speaking loudly…singing”—are exactly what makes church “an ideal setting for transmission.”
While I began churchyard haunting in childhood, the experience of hovering on church margins gained a much deeper significance when I reached my late teens, and, like many queer people raised in conservative religious traditions, realized I had to choose: my religion or myself.
Choosing myself meant so much more than no longer attending church: I had to become an outsider to what had hitherto been my own ways of talking, thinking, or belonging to a community, or even my family. And yet: In the six years I spent away from church, I didn’t pass a day without finding myself humming an old hymn or quoting a Bible verse or praying to a God I wished I didn’t believe in. This hauntedness, being an outsider-who-can-never-fully-get-out, was what finally drove me to seek a form of Christianity that offered me enough personal safety to function as a stable ledge from which I could dive into the historical and present-day depths of Christian violence.
My initial forays back to church revealed that outsider wasn’t merely a metaphor for my spiritual relationship to Christian culture: it was my body’s physical necessity in relation to church buildings themselves. I’d enter a church, sit in a back pew, and a particular hymn or Bible verse remembered from childhood would induce claustrophobic panic attacks, no matter how many rainbow flags hung out front or how many feminine or gender-neutral pronouns were used for God. Speaking of “my return to church” seems far too simplistic a phrase for that initial liminal year I spent hovering outside church doors afraid to go in, or fleeing out into fresh air long before service ended.
I was living in New York City at the time and settled into an uneasy routine of attending partial services at St Luke in the Fields, an historically queer-inflected Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village. All that first summer, I would flee the sanctuary before service ended, but remain in the church garden, crying under a tree, where music and incense would pour out the windows to meet me.
The churchyard was a valence of its own: out in the open air yet indisputably within the church’s orbit, it offered a sense of safety that the building could not. The pull of the churchyard kept me close long enough to be transformed by the love of the church community itself.
Between those first Sundays of churchyard haunting in my early twenties and the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 lies my reconciliation with church and with Christianity itself: my confirmation; my wife’s baptism and our church wedding; hours on church committees and kneeling in pews; the heartache of leaving St. Luke’s in New York and finding a new church in my hometown of Cleveland.
After all that, church in the time of pandemic is once again a perilous place: this time, for everyone.
When local COVID cases were, for a brief time, dropping in both June 2020 and 2021, my current church held socially distanced services on the church grounds—a full acre swathed in herbaceous-bordered lawns and the canopy of a venerable oak. Parishioners RSVPed for the service in advance for contact tracing, prepared our own lawn chairs and parasols, and arrived with plenty of time to check in and be escorted to 6-foot squares meticulously chalked 8 feet apart across the grass. On a bright June morning with just enough breeze, it was a solace to hear my mask- and open-air-muffled voice joined in prayers and psalms with others—though only in speech; no singing allowed.
My historically wealthy, majority white, congregation holds enormous privilege in the form of this shady green place. During these outdoor services, I’ve physically experienced the extent to which, far from going the way of medieval livestock tithes, land ownership remains yet another way churches hold or lack power in an inequitable world.
Having land access—the most privileged form being purely ornamental lawns and gardens—has spelled the pandemic difference between being able to hold safe church services or not, but also between having room to comfortably continue other ministries—like food or clothing outreach—or not.
I’ve spent many afternoons of the last two summers wandering through the “holy density” of Tremont, a neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side with a rich immigrant history. Partly, I sought the old balm of proximity, the comfort of just sitting outside a church, even—especially—if it’s not my church. But I was also looking for others making use of churchyards, seeking literal common ground with other Christians in the midst of compulsory outsiderness.
Last August, I visited the grounds of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church to see the open-air continuation of their almost 50-year-old meal ministry, one of Cleveland’s largest and longest-running. Though it faces an expansive park, the church itself doesn’t have much of a churchyard to speak of—certainly not enough to hold a socially distanced outdoor service. Nevertheless, the sidewalk near the parish hall door was deep enough to accommodate popup gazebos over food and water tables and the volunteers staffing them.
A volunteer introduced me to Luis, outfitted in his Guardian Angels red beret and sitting just inside the shadow of the church’s open door. Luis told me he’s posted at the top of the parish hall stairs to make sure only authorized volunteers enter to help with food prep. The Augustine Food Center’s community interface has to remain outdoors, he told me, for the first time in the 47 years it’s been operating. I thanked him and walked back into bright sunlight thinking of that other guardian angel, Uriel, standing with his flaming sword at the gate of Eden, preventing any human return to paradise.
Sometimes when churchyard-haunting, I look for a specific church on the map; other times I wander and sit in the shade of one that catches my eye. Most of the churches on Cleveland’s Near West Side are powerful gestures of permanence by immigrant communities from Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Wandering from the almost domestic bijou churchyard of St. Andrew Kim Korean Roman Catholic Church to the 13 billowing domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Church, I think how a community that manages to stay in one place long enough and raises enough money can acquire a wall and a roof—a place where they can literally be insiders, no matter how much the surrounding majority still excludes them.
Of course these community buildings, belonging-built-from-scratch, are ideal targets for those obsessed with making sure marginalized communities never truly belong. German and Austrian synagogues on Kristallnacht come to mind, as does the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama.
Thinking of 16th Street Baptist leads me to a list of “Attacks on Black Churches in the United States.” The list of bombings and burnings from 1950-1970—the period I’m specifically seeking, during the most fevered years of the Civil Rights Movement—falls far short of the list that covers my own living memory. Between 1995 and 1996 alone more than 30 historically Black churches were bombed or burnt in the United States. There are multiple national events I can remember from those years. But raised white and “colorblind” as I was, I do not remember hearing even once in those years that dozens of churches were going up in flames.
Here I collide with my own liminal reality: I began haunting churchyards because of my marginalized status as a queer woman, but my ability to do so with such frequency and ease indicates what an insider to the halls of power I really am. The pleasure of safely wandering, of undisturbed loitering, for no reason other than that one has chosen to, is, in this country and many others, a uniquely white privilege.
In the hundreds of hours of my life spent poking around churchyards, grounds, gardens, and graveyards, never once has anyone hostilely asked me why I was there. While the threat of male violence to my cisfemme body always exists, I’m fully aware that my insider status as a white woman has carried me safely through this embodied exploration of my outsiderness as a queer woman.
Mercea Eliade, a 20th c. sociologist and scholar of religion, called sacred sites themselves “thresholds”—a concept he clung to for its inherent paradox. The walls of the church build a boundary around—close off—what is holy, and a church door can be slammed and locked in outsiders’ faces. However, a threshold is also the strongest indicator of what Eliade called “the possibility of passage from one zone to another;” the opportunity to move beyond, to touch and be touched by something other than humdrum, everyday reality.
Revisiting my churchyard-haunting ways in 2020 and 2021 compelled me to wonder: if a religious building is in itself a threshold, and if thresholds are potent with possibility, what possibilities are uniquely latent in the threshold’s threshold—in the liminal outdoor space around the liminal religious building? What wisdom lies on the church steps, in the side alley, in the far corner of the graveyard, on the margins, and nowhere else?
As temperatures began to fall in October 2020, a cast of Timothy Schmaltz’ 2013 Homeless Jesus statue was installed in the front garden of an Episcopal church in one of Cleveland’s western suburbs, about 25 miles from my own church. Homeless Jesus gets around, and has appeared in prominent places all over the world: he’s a life-size cast bronze human figure, reclining and completely swathed in a blanket, except for the bare feet, on which wounds of crucifixion can be glimpsed.
Because large bronze statues are expensive, no matter the subject matter, Homeless Jesuses are often acquired by or loaned to affluent churches, in neighborhoods where visibly unhoused poverty is rare. That was exactly the case in West Lake, the Cleveland suburb where Homeless Jesus was installed last autumn, and where, twenty minutes after installation, a passerby called the police to report someone asleep in the churchyard.
Most local news and social media coverage was focused on the satisfying irony of this incident (“whatever you do to the least of these!”), on the 911-dial-happy Karens of this affluent white suburb, and on the need for more focus on those marginalized by pandemic economic crisis. I, though, remain more captivated by the setup than by the punchline. I’m more interested in the unexamined irony of wealthy churches (much like my own) using the marginal spaces of churchyards to install $20,000-worth depictions of marginalized people. After the police arrived to confirm that Homeless Jesus was indeed a statue, St. Barnabas Church in West Lake issued a statement similar to many others I found from churches who have hosted Homeless Jesus: “even though homelessness is not a significant problem in our immediate neighborhood, we don’t have to drive far to find those in tremendous need.”
The joke, to me, seems less on the woman who knew it was so-unusual-as-to-be-an-emergency for a person to rest in St. Barnabas’ churchyard, and more on the church that turned their churchyard into a homelessness-themed public art installation rather than throwing open their doors to welcome actual marginalized people out of the cold (after all, they wouldn’t “have to drive far” to pick them up and bring them). It’s an Escher-esque spiral of meaning and irony: using outside spaces to perform attitudes toward outsiders in such a way that nothing and no one need be internalized. No real people are brought in from the cold, nor does the discomfort of centering the most marginalized people penetrate to the heart of congregational life.
Outsiders aren’t always outsiders just because a door is locked, or because there’s a sign explicitly banning someone of a specific identity from coming inside. Activist and Scholar Keeangha-Yamahtta Taylor describes “predatory inclusion” in the exploitation of Black families in post-Civil Rights Act America, when white “insiders” with societal power mistook granting access (that benefitted majority white institutions) for creating sanctuary. Simply outlawing segregationist real estate or school policies and saying “All are welcome here” without attacking more insidious oppressive dynamics in the community and in ourselves is akin to inviting someone out of the frying pan into the fire, having first marketed the fire as a safe, cooling oasis.
I’d like to take some of the COVID-era realization that danger can lurk even (and especially) in places of shelter and do more than just fling open our doors (like any number of churches during the worst moments of the pandemic did), saying “come on in!” If we interrupt the narrative that inside=safety and outside=danger, we might have a more critical foundation from which to face and begin to dismantle the racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, perils at work in our communities and systems and selves.
I want to emphasize that honoring and listening to those loitering in the margins isn’t just a stepping stone toward getting everyone together under one roof. The person loitering outside the church (or university or office building or any other honored institution) isn’t necessarily waiting to come in, even if those inside have fully addressed the harm that they might have unwittingly done.
The possibility that Eliade saw in liminal space is more powerful and less binary than in/out. While churchyards’ sacredness is often framed as flowing outward from churches’ holy interiors, there is another way to see it. Perhaps marginal holy places are holy because of their unique potential to center marginalized people. Threshold spaces that are open for people to wander through in their own time, to rest in on their own schedules, can offer that rare, and—I think—very holy thing: an expansive refuge, an embrace in which freedom does not dwindle, but grows.
Elisabeth Plumlee-Watson is a bookseller, editor, and writer living and working in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Terrain.org, Oh Reader Magazine, The Stonecrop Review, and elsewhere. She also writes the monthly book recommendation Substack, Seasons Readings and is on Instagram @eplumleewatson