Bridgewater Baptist Church, Beatific
Listen reverently as Charlie Haden and John Taylor play “Bittersweet,” the sound of this story.
Imagine a young man, newly arrived in America, suitcase in hand. He strolls through Electric Park as fireworks burst overhead, raining shimmer on the city. Revelers everywhere, waving flags and sparklers. Such light, such noise, such happiness. For a moment, he wonders if it’s all for him. Welcome to America! He shakes his head and looks toward the light in amazement. What a marvelous country. And he proclaims it the most beautiful place he’s ever seen.
So goes the opening scene of the movie Avalon. Independence Day, 1914, through the eyes of an immigrant. So authentic, I almost believe it happened. But something about the scene seems off kilter, as though bits of time are missing.
There really was an Electric Park and each night it gleamed with thousands of lights outlining the buildings. Amusement rides and dance halls reflected joie de vivre up to the heavens. Add elaborate firework shows produced by the Pain Company and it must have been grand. Flights of rockets, bouquets of roman candles illuminating all of northwest Baltimore. Fireworks! Ooooh! Aaaah!
The cinematographer of Avalon used a unique method to envision the past, distinguish it from the present. It’s called stretch-printing—filming action at silent movie speed rather than standard speed, then repeating every third frame. Some of the images are shortened, others are lengthened. And the result is slightly diffused, a tad blurry. “Beatific” one AP reporter called it. This is how nostalgia looks through the eyes of an award-winning cinematographer. Thank you, Allen Daviau, for wrenching so much emotion out of film-stock in those opening moments.
Homily on Regret
Stretched time. This is how I see the Bridgewater church now. A filtered portrayal of what used to be. Scenes with tiny glitches in time, glitches when certain members go missing from the congregation. They are present for one bright moment. Like fireworks. Then gone. Membership at Bridgewater was transient for a number of reasons. The church was in Somerset County, New Jersey, a high-functioning region of the country where high-functioning individuals from other places are recruited to staff multinational corporations. But, all too frequently, those individuals transferred elsewhere or jumped to the competition. Transience is our unspoken regret; we blink and another of our precious few families is leaving for someplace else. Another farewell party after church. Another cleavage of the body. Bridgewater did welcome and farewell often, religiously.
As befitting good Baptists, some leave over doctrinal issues, clashes about the right way to do and be church. And they are bid God-speed. Others go because of cleavages of the family sort. But the transience of greatest regret—those who leave this earth. The slow terrible death of a child, the shocking death of a teenager, sudden death of a husband, a father, sad deaths of elderly saints. We bid them an unending independence day.
When my husband was considering becoming pastor of the Bridgewater church, the Executive Director of the regional Baptist association warned us: “You will experience many, many transitions of members. Learn to celebrate their contribution, however brief. Never regret their leaving.” He was right, transitions were many. But his advice went unheeded—I always regretted their leaving.
I deal with transitions by stretch-printing. On my mind-film, I shorten memories of departures, lengthen the arrivals.
Litany for Arrivals
They stand in the hallway one Sunday morning, a tall couple with saucer-eyed, red-headed children peeping from behind them, saying, “Do you have Sunday School for children?” We welcome you warmly.
They plop down in the pastor’s study on a week-day morning, tattooed, spiked and chained, saying, “I’ve got to get some things straightened out in my life. Can I start coming here?” We welcome you warmly.
They shake hands after the service, sheepishly saying, “I’m supposed to be at my own church but things have changed there. I like how you do worship. I’ll be back.” We welcome you warmly.
They call Monday morning after visiting on Sunday, saying, “I don’t care what denomination it is. How do I join?” We welcome you warmly.
Confession and Illumination
Along with staging evocative images and choosing the speed of film, cinematographers must pay attention to the light. That’s where the inspiration comes from. Let there be light. “Actors tend to play toward the light,” Mr. Daviau said in an interview. They lift their faces to it. Focus, depth, perspective all come from light. That’s why cinematographers spend time studying light. That’s why the deacons and leaders of Bridgewater church studied it.
Now may be a good time to say that Bridgewater Baptist Church was Southern Baptist—officially. You’d think their sole source of denominational light would come from headquarters in Nashville. But, as years go by, Bridgewater’s alignments begin to shift. Under the steeple with Southern Baptists are American Baptists, Catholics, Church of God, Methodists, Reformed, a couple of Quakers, one Swedenborgian. A family of Buddhists. Probably an atheist. Converted, one and all, to Baptistic ways and means. Some newcomers; others, lifers who are present for all the hellos and all the goodbyes. It takes trust and commitment, on everyone’s part, to stay focused on the main things; to prevent barrage or mine shell or whiplash fireworks from going off inside the building.
After awhile, the congregation begins turning to the moderate light emanating from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Less pyrotechnics, more steady illumination. Diffused, inclusive. Not as likely to injure souls when set off. The flambeau effect is fine for the Fourth of July, outside.
Hymn of Thanksgiving
North Branch Park is the place for fireworks and family fun on Independence Day. Hundreds of people jam onto Milltown Road and before long, it turns into a parking lot. They mill around until after dark when fireworks will start. Bridgewater Baptist Church happens to be across from the park and every Fourth, church folk arrive early to picnic around back behind the sanctuary, then settle down on the front lawn to watch the show. They’re well-fed (Cuban-style pork roasted all day out back), sprayed against mosquitoes, wrapped in sweaters against chilly night air that signals the too-soon return of autumn.
They whoop excitedly when the first comets and diadems splash across the sky, showering silver and gold. Then gradually, voices blend as though a well-rehearsed choir. Sopranos and altos lead: Ooooh, Aaaah. Ooooh, Aaaah. Basses and tenors quit their punning and their talk of shop (telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, engineering, productivity, unused frequent flyer miles) and contribute a low rumble: Mmmm, Mmmm. Little kids stop munching brownies and chirp: Looook, Looook. Some Español and Lao contretemps: Bonita! Bonita! Boeng, Boeng. Teens mock all of us: Ooh la la, Ooh la la. And soon we have a hymn to pyrotechnics. A hymn punctuated by booms and pops and cracks of stars bursting in air and if you look with eyes of love, it all falls down on you. Oh wondrous sight. Oh glorious sound. This people. This diverse transient congregation.
Passing of the Peace
The places Bridgewater members left behind: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Cuba, England, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Laos (by way of Thailand), Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mexico, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Nigeria, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Trinidad, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia. Through the years, New Jerseyans say, We welcome you warmly, to all who arrive, stunned and speaking in regional lingo.
A single woman, a family, an elderly man, find their way to Bridgewater Baptist Church. They are looking for soul freedom or some other freedom. And they smile and look toward the light in amazement. Others want a clone of their hometown church somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line. And eventually they are disappointed. Some seek leadership. And they go right to work. Some need to be triaged. The sick, the halt, the lame. A few want nothing. They are just a-passing through. I, the world’s most reluctant pastor’s wife, want fewer regrets.
After worshipping at a 4-H center for some years (the prelude this morning is “Sweeping Out the Straw”), the Bridgewater congregation built themselves a fine building. And before the walls were painted, congregants scribbled on them. They stood in the empty sanctuary, chose their spot and wrote verses of commitment and hope. The next day, the pastor walked around the room and transcribed verbatim the peoples’ words. And some of those words were later preached.
The words of the congregation are written on the sanctuary walls. Now covered in paint. But paint cannot constrain the proclamation. Day by day, year by year, those words were lived, ever bolder.
Time of Reflection
For its size, the Bridgewater church did spectacular things. Like new and fresh children’s programming. Like a chamber-size orchestra and a praise band. Ambitious choir cantatas and children’s musicals. Backyard Bible clubs. Mission trips. Family-friendly Advent and Lenten series. Jaw-dropping talent nights.
Bridgewater birthed two other congregations. Sponsored Laotian refugee families. Ordained a woman to the ministry.
Once there was a place called Bridgewater Baptist Church and it did spectacular things. Spectacular like fireworks. But unlike fireworks that are nothing more than ash after the spark and crackle, the Bridgewater church has staying power in the lives of congregants now far-flung. Stretch your memory.
And now abide images, music, and light; these three. May they become as one and rain down upon you. Amen.
When fireworks misfire, there’s usually damage. Something’s bound to be rendered asunder. Someone gets hurt or worse, dies, and it makes the newspapers. But no one talks about the demise of a church much (except the uninvolved pundit). The injury to those who take the brunt of the hit. The harm to bystanders. The cost to faith. It was a couple of pastors later when things started imploding or exploding or firing off sideways at Bridgewater. We don’t know much about it. No one talks about the demise of a church much.
Bridgewater Baptist Church, in Bridgewater, New Jersey, was established in 1977 and merged with another church in 2007.
“Bittersweet” by Charlie Haden and John Taylor, Nightfall, track 2, Naim Label, 2004.
The first (and only) woman ordained by Bridgewater Baptist Church, Tammy Abee Blom, served as Associate Coordinator for leadership development with the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She contributes to the Baptist Women in Ministry blog.