Many weeks ago, before the world turned inward, my wife and I went out to see the classic film “Lilies of the Field.” It is a family favorite starring Sidney Poitier, about a man who is compelled to build a church for a community of nuns in Arizona. They had no place to worship and were suffering both economic and societal hardships. You may know it for its famous “Amen” scene.
The film makes me cry every time I watch it, as I reflect on just how much people sacrificed and endured for something so important to them: a sacred space to feel close to God. The movie ended as I finished my second order of loaded cheese fries (no bacon) and bottomless popcorn (with real clarified butter) from the posh reclining seats of the Alamo Drafthouse cinema, and we drove home. Little did I know those luxuries would soon be in our rear view.
Fast forward to now, Holy Week, with the stark reality of the world. Firmly setting in are stories of pain and sorrow, inspiration and kindness, all playing out on small screens, as we are confined to our homes for the ambiguous “foreseeable future.” I have two children, ages 3 and 1, and one acre of Virginia countryside is our new world. They have not stepped foot inside a church in more than a month, a ritual lovingly described by my older daughter as “going to alleluia” — and something I fear she has forgotten about.
Our reality is sometimes possible to escape (don’t check the internet) — yet it is impossible not to be compelled to monitor the state of the world, and to wonder how we can help. I have been thinking about how to make this time not a moment of stressful imprisonment, but an opportunity to do something special and maintain some semblance of normalcy. Time is no longer the sparse commodity it used to be, as aspiring to thrive becomes secondary to basic survival.
Why are you anxious about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
They don’t toil, neither do they spin.
— Matthew 6:28
According to this line from the Sermon on the Mount (and inspiration for the name of the movie), we are lilies under God’s watch. Wouldn’t you know it, lilies just happen to be growing on the small hill — you might even consider it a “mount” — in our backyard. Naturally, and providentially, as if the movie, botany and the stars were all in alignment, I decided that I must build a church in my backyard.
Life imitating art imitating life.
I’m a writer, however, with little to no carpentry or construction skills. I own one saw, specifically used for cutting bathroom pipes, and a few rusty rake and clipper heirlooms from the 1980s. Perhaps my sharpest tool, though, is a strong will as a dad — to, at the very least, remind my kids of sacred spaces even if our usual one is off limits; to make this forced ordinary time in our spiritual lives just a bit more extraordinary. After all, it is Holy Week and still, the monotony of Peppa Pig and her brother, George, is what animates my daughter on a Sunday.
There are a few tips to creating a backyard “church.” (Note, I’m calling it a church just for the sake of my kids; halt all firing of church canon my way.) I’ve compiled a list, should you be so inclined to explore your own project this week:
Do you ask the homeowners association for permission to build a church in your backyard? No. Ask for forgiveness, naturally. There is no policy for open-air churches made from cut logs and dried trees. Also, make the church as naturalistic as possible so it blends in with the neighborhood aesthetic and can be deconstructed in under 10 minutes should a neighbor or family of bears protest.
Take great joy in having a friend who owns a chain saw.
Avoid the backache but do not miss the metaphors in your building of this church: the carrying of heavy wooden logs on your shoulder up hills, getting pricked by thorns as you clear brush.
Focus less on what needs to still be built, and more on what has already been built through the gift of creation: a patch of budding mayflower as the altar; a blooming redbud tree as the stained-glass window in the sanctuary; pieces of fallen timber from a pile that, when repurposed next to each other, evoke the crucifixion scene.
Hope that in your naturalistic Easter week tableau, your neighbors don’t somehow misinterpret your work for some weird form of ancient zoolatry.
“We have a church in our backyard?!!” exclaimed my 3-year-old. I decided to upgrade: “We have a cathedral! Your cathedral.”
She knelt down on what may be the most uncomfortable kneeler in the history of any church, real or otherwise — a recently chopped log of cherry tree — and she said a prayer. I imagined this too would be our family parish where we all come together to count our blessings on Easter morning. Then she got up, explored other “pews,” and asked if “Jesus’ mother, Mary” was here. I smiled and nodded as my 1-year-old came rumbling and yelling down the main “aisle.”
“Shhhh …” whispered my daughter. “We have to be quiet in church.”
As choirs of birds sang and a light rain began to sprinkle, our rituals continued. Some normalcy was found that day. Something sacred, too, in forms unexplored, during times unknown.
Here on this small mount in Central Virginia, the lilies are not spinning or toiling, but elegantly adorning our hopes for a better world.
And to that, I sing “amen.”
Matt Weber is senior assistant to the president and a lecturer at the University of Virginia. He is a humorist on faith and culture, and author of “Operating on Faith” and “Fearing the Stigmata.”