On April 10, Eugene First Christian Church celebrated its 150th anniversary. You’ve probably seen the church building — white columns under a massive dome, bronze-capped bell tower, stained glass windows everywhere you look.
And maybe you’ve even heard about some of the work this congregation does: the Helping Hands Room, the Interfaith Shelter and Egan Warming Center (side by side with other outstanding local congregations) and, most recently, its sponsorship of Opportunity Village.
I had the privilege of delivering the sermon at this fine church’s sesquicentennial service — not because I’m some big shot on the preaching circuit, but because I am a product of First Christian Church. This is the congregation that welcomed me as a baby, baptized me as a child, helped pay for my college textbooks, married me and ordained me. I think it’s fair to say I owed them one.
So I told my church a story about the Great Depression. I talked about how hobos (those lone rangers of our nation’s railways, highways and byways) relied on information passed along by their fellow travelers — information that could save a man’s life, or at least save him from a month in jail.
They developed a code, a series of images that conveyed useful knowledge, that could be chalked onto fences and gateposts: A drawing of a cat told travelers that a kind woman lived in the house, while a stick figure of a lady followed by a few triangles (an approximation of tears) meant that you’d need to tell a pitiful story to curry her favor. Two rails meeting in a T meant that there was work here — a wonderful thing to find in a time of scarcity — but you had to read carefully: Two plain lines meeting in a crooked T meant that a beating awaited you.
There were codes for mean dogs and good roads, easy marks and dishonest men. There was even a sign to let you know you were passing by the house of the local judge. Walk briskly.
Then I wondered what kinds of markings we might have found on the pillars, steps and railings of First Christian. Since we’re a church, one might have expected a cross to be etched outside our doors. But in hobo code, a Christian cross on the fence didn’t mean that the residents were kind or merciful or just. It just meant “talk religion and they’ll give you food.” That doesn’t really reflect how First Christian does ministry. We love Jesus a whole lot, but it’s not our style to push religion on anybody.
Another popular hobo symbol was a loaf — it meant, well, bread. And anyone who’s spent time at First Christian knows that we’re crazy about that wheaty goodness. We ask for it every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, eat it every time we worship and try to share it with everyone we meet. We pride ourselves on being good neighbors, and we think that entails making sure the people around us don’t starve (or freeze or suffer injustice).
So maybe one would have found little pictures of loaves on our front steps, chalked where only a trained eye could spot them.
Then again, First Christian isn’t just about bread. We follow a man who brought bread to the people and also something he called “the bread of life.” The first kind fills the belly, the second kind fills the soul. So when we pray for our daily bread, we’re asking for food — not just for ourselves but for the world. And we’re also asking for nourishment that can strengthen us against despair and hopelessness, against myopia and hard-heartedness.
We are asking for God.
There was no hobo symbol, at least not one that I could find, for bread like that. But anywhere that bread is found is special, and there was a symbol for that. And it is my prayer for this downtown church that it might be that sort of place in the heart of Eugene for another 150 years.