On Churches and Porches

by the Rev. Scott Walters


Wendell Berry observed that the eyes were once considered the window to the soul. Now, making eye contact with a stranger on an American city sidewalk can be construed as a form of aggression.


What does this say about our souls?


The problem here, I suspect, is not urbanization, but privatization. The privatization I’m talking about isn’t about the ownership of banks or health care or security forces. The problem may be the privatization of our spiritual lives.


The house where my aunt and uncle lived when I was a child was on an ordinary street, lined with ordinary ranch houses. They were built during an era in which our dwellings were evolving into garages with attached houses and neighborhood sidewalks were going away.


Front porches were also disappearing or being reduced to stoops just large enough for a couple of visitors to stand within, awaiting their welcome into the house. But one neighbor pushed back against the architecture of the day, not by remodeling his house, but by sitting on a lawn chair in his garage with the door raised.


It was a defiant act, really, to read his paper and drink a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon there. It at least defied what his home and his neighborhood were trying to have him do. Everything was arranged with its back to the street, the life of the household directed to the backyard, space that was privacy-fenced and accessible only to the invited.


But since front porch culture and sidewalks were gone, the garage sitter also seemed a little pathetic. Out of place. He couldn’t conjure up the lost street life front porches were once constructed to witness, so his guerrilla porch sits struck me as sad and ineffective acts, like the heaving gills of a landed fish.


The image of the modern spiritual pilgrim is often that of the solo explorer, going it alone deep into the mystery of life. But aren’t there too many of us who have struck out on our own, only to find ourselves alone on an aluminum chair in the garage, looking for the life on a sidewalk that isn’t there?


Privatizing the spiritual life comes at a cost. Because if the eyes really are the window to the soul, I can’t gain access to my own soul without you. I can’t see my own eyeballs.


So maybe one faithful concept of church is making an honest-to-God front porch for the soul. A place where we plop ourselves down precisely because there’s no telling whom we might encounter there. Or because we do know whom we’re going to encounter there: a smattering of those wonderful, annoying, hypocritical, brilliant, loving, petty creatures we call humans.


Christian tradition and holy scripture suggest in countless ways that the soul is better accessed in all those exchanges between selves rather than within a self in isolation. Maybe going to church is simply deciding to sit for a spell once a week and see which of God’s beloved children passes by.


Churchgoing, like front porch sitting, is an old and increasingly forgotten practice that some of us have found essential to our lives. And so we start going, or we keep going, or we return after too much time away from church, because, as Kathleen Norris puts it, “when the battles rage, people [she’s speaking of churchgoing folk here] hold on. They find a sufficient unity, and a rubbed raw but sufficient love, and even the presence of God.”

22 thoughts on “On Churches and Porches”

  1. absolutely true for me……and I do create my porch close to the street and in the streets twice a day… hope to be sitting in the pew again one day…..always a gift I find……
    thank you Scott,

  2. This. Yes.
    “They find a sufficient unity, and a rubbed raw but sufficient love, and even the presence of God.”

  3. -I do find the presence of God in the choir loft while I watch our neighbors pass by to receive communion because we are all God’s people.
    -My Pap-paw did sit in his lawn chair in the garage with the door up!! He was Southern Baptist, no beer!!!
    -I read a Wendell Berry quote in one of my meditation books on May 31st. It is edited:” The World cannot be discovered by a journey of miles…only be a spiritual journey…by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home”
    I knew nothing about Wendell Berry before May 31st!! I think it is really cool that you linked windows, souls, eyes, and from porches. As always, good writing.

  4. I hope this is the start of a long relationship with Wendell Berry, Mary! He’s been a guiding star for 30 years or so for me.

  5. I love porches with swings, rocking chairs, grandmas and 6 year olds shelling peas and I love church gatherings. Thank you for showing us the obvious, they are the soul-same.

  6. This was wonderful, Scott. I identified with every word, and with all the responses! One of your best, and that’s saying a LOT! p.s. I LOVE my front porch. Love Calvary even more.

  7. I took my laptop out on my front porch to reread this after reading it the first time. Audrey and I, especially Audrey, sit on our front porch quite often and it allows us to meet not only our immediate neighbors but those who may not live on our street who may be walking, biking, or taking their dogs on a stroll. It gives us the opportunity to meet people we may otherwise may have never met before and helps create a stronger sense of community in our neck of the woods.
    Being present at church allows us an even more sense of community and fellowship that we can’t achieve when we are not there.. Many people profess to being spiritual yet they do not worship in community with others when they do not attend an actual church service. Being in the pews most Sunday mornings strengthens my spirituality by sharing that spirituality with those I may have otherwise never known.

  8. It was such a blessing having virtual services during the pandemic. I enjoyed sitting in my pj’s, drinking coffee and seeing nature at work outside our windows. It was tempting to not return to Church when I could have it remotely, but once I returned I realized the importance of community more than I ever had before. Smiles, nods, touches, exchanges of greetings, and meaningful conversations all remind me that I’m a part of the family of God and it’s a wonderful reunion!

  9. Heaving gills of a landed fish… what an image to use to analogize.

    Thanks as always for your warm thoughts about the importance of community, especially in light of our world’s movement towards in the opposite direcrion.

  10. Thanks, Scott. It’s so true that the need for community and connection has never been greater.

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