In the stage play & motion picture, the character ‘Ethel Thayer’ says, “Sometimes you have to look at a person and believe they are trying the very best they can.”

This was on my mind as I watched the hungry, the homeless eating meals at First Lutheran Church in downtown Dayton. This was truly an enjoyable and fulfilling day, but also a one of reflection. Aside from those on the streets in New York City, the only exposure I had personally had with those in dire need was the nameless person I saw going through my trash can when I lived just across the river in downtown Dayton. After this discovery, I began wrapping up food and setting it on top of the trash to keep it from the raccoon family that shared our neighborhood. As a single person, I can imagine it would be bad enough to be in complete want, but as a parent with children it would have to be horrendous! This afternoon, I was even more thankful that I can provide a decent life for my family in comforts that may not seem much to my sons at times, but is far more than what most of these folks have.

Jose’s confirmation class at North Riverdale Lutheran Church, and several other Lutheran churches in the Dayton area, were the groups brought together for this very worthwhile community service. We arrived at First Lutheran Church on First Street and the students received their assignments. The first step was to make up sandwiches to place in paper bags along with chips so there would be something to take with them for dinner or the next day’s meal. The confirmands got busy making the sandwiches and doing a variety of other tasks. They quickly finished preparing the paper bag meals and were invited to make a sandwich for themselves. After eating, they realized they had quite a bit of time on their hands so the host pastor took the students on a tour.

First Lutheran Church was built in 1906, seven years before the Great Dayton Flood that devastated area in 1913. The church is built rather high above the ground, yet the water still rose 3/4 up the pews in the sanctuary. The minister pointed out the pipe organ which is approximately 153 pipes… wow! Monte and I hit the alter/choir area where we each took a turn. The confirmands took off on their own exploration as Monte and I opened up the pipes. What a beautiful sound!

The church is HUGE! Sadly, they are in a near non-existent state, worshiping 30-50 per week, and hanging by a few threads. In my opinion, several of the downtown churches in decline should band together and merge into First Lutheran. I am sure it must be dreadful to close one’s church, especially if it has held several generations of one’s family like ours at Trinity United Methodist in Elwood, Indiana; however, these people could do so much more as one united congregation, possibly saving the very beautiful, historic First Lutheran building.

After wandering through the chapel, which was just as gorgeous as the main sanctuary, Monte and I headed up to the second floor where there was a tiny piano keyboard of not more than 20 keys, located at the bottom of the stairs leading to the bell tower. I played the keys – silence. Monte played the keys just as I located the switch… BONG! BONG! BONG! The deafening noise startled us both and I know we both looked like 14 year olds (41 reversed) who had just touched something we should not have.

With that loud mischief accomplished, we headed up the steep stairs to a room about 30 X 30 feet. The first thing I noticed was a narrow, wooden stairs that wound up around the 40 feet high walls, leading to the top portion of the bell tower. Ropes from the carillons hung freely, and the former operating levers of the carillons stood there before us, echoing the advancement of the keyboard technology Monte had demonstrated a few minutes before. To the confirmand kids who passed by them, I am sure they were merely something to grab hold of, lifting the levers roughly hoping to create sound… but to me they were a part of a musical past that somehow connected me to my favorite Daytonians, Wilbur, Orville and Katharine Wright (Wilbur & Orville’s sister). I imagined that Katharine Wright, a Latin-Greek teacher at Steele High School which once stood a few blocks away, must have heard these bells time and again as she passed by First Lutheran on her two mile walk to the Wright family home at 7 Hawthorne Street, two miles away. When the Wright Brothers had their one bicycle shop two blocks south, they too must have heard these bells. In June 1909, when the Wrights returned from their European adventures, hailed as ‘kings of the air,’ the city of Dayton held one of its greatest celebrations. At 9:00am, June 9, 1909, the festivities commenced with whistles blowing and bells ringing for two minutes throughout the city of Dayton… I am sure the bells that hung some 80 feet above me were a part of that moment. In 1912, when the church bells rang to honor the life of Wilbur Wright who died from typhoid fever, I knew these bells contributed to the mournful orchestration as people filed into First Baptist Street a block away. Those levers, standing against the wall to gather dust, slipping further into a fading world of brilliant technology from its own time, were to me, a warm connection to the past of carillon musicians, the Wright family and a day when church bells were a common sound in most communities.

Monte made it further up the steps than I did. When I reached the room’s height of approximately 40 feet, I stepped out on to the little deck that looked out on to other roofs of nearby buildings, but up to the tall towers that dominate the skyline of Dayton. Monte moved on up the even steeper set of steps to see the bells and offered to hold the camera, but as I looked down through the open rail I left the 14 year old mentality at the carillon keyboard and was startled back to age 41. The dizzying height, coupled with the open rail was a little too much. Give me a roller coaster any day, but this I could not handled.

Back down the steps, I watched the young boys grab hold of the ropes, tug them downward, and cheer as they were lifted off the floor by the clanging bells overheard. Oh, how I wanted to give those ropes a tug, but was fearful my weight would bring the bell crashing through the wooden floor forty feet above. We met a parishioner who was moving through the attic area, showing us the cat walks over the sanctuary lighting and other little items. He was skilled in wood working and was eager to show us the original altar, like the
ancient carillon levers, standing in semi-forgotten corner gathering layers of dust. The altar was beautiful and I captured a few shots of it with the top portion of the stained glass window as a gorgeous backdrop.

As we moved down the stairs to the second floor, I noticed graffiti on the walls of the stair well – but suddenly, one listing, staring at me directly ahead, read, “Jose Haas was here January 21, 2006.” I could not tell if the wave of nausea was left over from the steps leading to the bell tower or from seeing graffiti in my own son’s fresh handwriting! The guy who had led us through the attic assured me the children were always encouraged to sign their names on the stair well’s walls. Although I was assured, I was still slightly uncomfortable. One of those ‘pick your battle’ moments as a parent… ugh!

After wandering around the church some more, and speaking a few minutes with the host pastor in his study, Monte and I moved back to the basement where the feeding had begun. The pastors gathered in one corner, observing their young confirmands at work. I observed my own sons, uncertain as to how this moment of staring some of their own past in the face would affect them. Matthew was in top form as he served up hot food to each visitor, smiling and offering small talk; Jose, happy as ever, poured drinks as though he was at a middle school mixer (or happy hour ten years from now!). Both boys had experienced food lines and shelter houses in their past, yet it did not seem to haunt them in any visible way. I was proud of them mixing with the visitors the way they did. I also observed the young folks from the church in the very affluent Oakwood, wondering how they would react – of course, to the team of boys serving it was like a day at Disneyland to them as they made the most enjoyment out of the moment. Finally, the confirmands were herded into another chapel in the basement for a “debriefing” of what they had experienced. The leader of this mission program spoke, and although his heart was undoubtedly in the right place, his presentation for “you youngin’s” was tiresome and far too preachy. The mission leader and his wife did provide an activity where the “youngin’s” searched through bits of dirt and rock to find unpolished gems, illustrating the worth of each individual we meet… still, it was rather lengthy, and the ever dutiful Matthew, who seldom wavers in his pew manners, was becoming glassy-eyed. Jose? Well, let’s just say he was Jose, looking at the speaker but definitely engaged in some mental journey to Disney World.

Leaving the church, Monte and I took the boys to lunch at an eatery near the Fifth Third Baseball Field – the home of our very own, Dayton Dragons. After an entertaining and refreshing chat (while my sons ran up a tab on $2.50 rootbeers – knowing their limit per meals is one!), Monte and Adam escorted us to Mendelson’s Liquidation Outlet. I had seen the gigantic, towering, anciet warehouse before but had never ventured inside. Although I found something I needed for my desk at Muse Machine, the building itself was another cultural adventure.

A beautiful bell tower of the Catholic church next to Mendelson’s in downtown Dayton.

After downloading and fixing up photos of the youngin’s mission moment at First Lutheran, I took the boys to see a movie, recommended by Adam, who had not seen the movie. I pulled it up on the internet and saw that the actress who played “Marie” on Everybody Loves Raymond and Shirley Jones (Oklahoma!, The Music Man and The Partridge Family) were in this movie. Great! Once again, my parenting skills in this particular arena seemed to dip greatly. I handed over my ticket to see Grandma’s Boy to the attendant, and stepped into the hallway as several other audience members stood in front of Jose and Matthew. I heard the ticket attendant ask my sons, “May I see your ID please?” They immediately pointed me out and the guy let them pass. Once again, I had unknowlingly taken my sons to a rated R movie. How could Mrs. Partidge appear in anything but a G rating? It was the raunchiest movie I have ever seen! And once again, my sons handled themselves like gentlemen and not like giggling, immature teenagers… but afterall, they were sitting with their father!

To see more photographs of our day, please visit: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/dljh_dayton/album?.dir=7bf0&.src=ph