It was the last Saturday before life was largely shut down in villages, towns, and cities across our presbytery. It had already been an intense week of trying to stay ahead of the implications of the growing coronavirus pandemic on our congregations. I was fried! So I did what I often do when I have gone numb from the intensity of work. I headed up to the mountains and enjoyed a good snow hike up to Tamanawas Falls about thirty miles south of Hood River. It was a day when I had to shut “all things church” out of my head for a few hours.
I was not successful!
After enjoying a good meal and an especially tasty, bitter IPA at Full Sail Brewery I decided to wander slowly through the town of Hood River. I didn’t need the exercise, but I did need the meandering meditative pace that had been impossible in weeks past. I peered in the windows of gift shops. I checked out the most recent winter biking gear. I stopped at a coffee haunt for a chai tea latte and let my mind go blank.
The day was nearing an end and so I decided to walk a few more blocks before making my way back to my car and driving back to the Portland area. As I walked by an especially attractive old stone building, I stopped. The sign above the large double doors said “Brimstone Boulders”.
I was curious. Could it be a grave stone business or possibly the office building for a landscaping business? Might it even be some offbeat museum for local geological finds? Somewhere back in my mind the thought of this being a church playfully teased me.
Hours were posted next to the door indicating it was open and I walked in. I wasn’t ready to pay an entrance fee, but I wanted to at least find out what Brimstone Boulders was and why it was in this almost church-like structure.
I smiled broadly as soon as I crossed the threshold into the main entrance. A long pew was stretched below the window to the left. Organ pipes were decoratively displayed at the check-in counter. Large stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes filtered the sun in an array of multi-colored rays across the floor. In the middle of the room, clearly an old sanctuary, towered a number of man-made boulders specifically designed to challenge your every day, indoor rock climber.
I had intended to put “all things church” aside for the day. Instead, I had run into a story of the transformation and the repurposing of our church buildings.
Conor, who co-owns the rock climbing gym with his wife, Jen, spent about twenty minutes showing me around and telling me the story of how this once Methodist Church had become Brimstone Boulders.Conor had grown up in the Catholic Church and still fondly remembered his youth group days. The church had had an impact on him. Despite leaving the church as is routine for many Millenials, Conor still yearned for the sense of community, the shaping of youth, and a place committed to intentional values.
This is a strange time to write this blogpost as most, if not all of our churches, are vacant and unused while we all quarantine ourselves during this coronavirus pandemic. But I do know that even when many of our congregations do return to their buildings that they will return to some buildings that are underused. Many of our churches have old Sunday school classrooms that sit empty year round or have become storage rooms for relics of Christmas pageants past. Some churches only use their fellowship halls for a couple of hours every Sunday. Offices that at one time held multiple staff now have a layer of dust covering old commentaries and lectionary resources.
I think the thing that struck me as I talked with Conor and wandered around the repurposed building was that Conor and his contemporaries were as committed to creating community as we are in our churches. They aren’t just a rock climbing gym. They hold youth camps and team training events. They host community nights that are more about connecting than climbing. They post their values for all to see.
On their homepage in big letters are the words, “OLD CHURCH, NEW ROCK CLIMBING GYM”. Conor could have downplayed the fact that the rock climbing gym was in an old church as if that might keep people away. But for him it was just the opposite. The fact that it is in an old church is the attraction. It says something about the values they want to nurture and the community they want to create. You can feel it as soon as you walk in. This isn’t a gym. This is a sacred place that happens to be committed to building community and character through rock climbing.
If you have space and are willing to share think about connecting with some of our young people in the community. Many of our young people are returning to the values of their grandparents—simplicity, relationships, connection, do-it-yourself, and traditional values. You might find that you have more in common with them than you think.
In fact, make a deal.
Ask them to learn how to quilt in exchange for them teaching you how to rock climb!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades