Letting the Light In

Publication Note: This column was first published in the June 7, 2017 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format.  It is the 13th installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.

Since I began writing this column last year, one of my primary hopes has been that overlooked people, places, and potential within our community would be highlighted and appreciated.  Last month, we discussed the new vision that our town has embraced- a visible, attractive, and connected Lonoke.  People are beginning to notice Lonoke, and are starting to see our community in a different light.  The people of Lonoke are taking important steps toward achieving visibility in our region and state.

Often, the most interesting things about our community go unnoticed right in our midst.  My wife Natalie and I recently had the privilege of touring the interior of one of Lonoke’s hidden treasures, the historic First Christian Church building at the corner of 2nd and Depot Streets.  In a previous column titled “A Place to Meet,” we recalled the fact that Lonoke is home to sixteen properties on the National Register of Historic Places.  The First Christian Church building, which will be 101 years old this year, is one such property and was home to a congregation that named some of Lonoke’s most prominent citizens among its membership throughout the decades.  It was inspiring to stand in the sanctuary space which is almost completely unaltered from the way it appeared when these town fathers and mothers once worshiped together.  That particular day, the weather was rainy and overcast outside, but the inside of the church building was bright and fully illuminated, in spite of the fact that the electricity was not turned on.  Interestingly, the glass in the numerous tall windows which open onto the sanctuary space is is not stained glass, nor is it clear vision glass, but rather it is obscured by a pattern that gives it a translucence- a characteristic which is not readily discernible from the exterior of the building.  As we experienced the building from the inside, we could not see directly out, and the effect was much like walking through a field enveloped by a cloud of fog.  It was peaceful, as though we were wrapped in a blanket and shielded from the activity of the outside world for a few minutes.

There is nothing ostentatious about the First Christian Church building, but it is incredibly unique in many ways.  Listed on the National Register for nearly two decades, the architectural description compiled by historians notes the Craftsman detailing with Tudor Revival influences.  These simple architectural details are striking in their quantity and execution.  The interior and exterior construction reflect both the practicality and the sincerity of the congregation who built it. The second floor balcony overlooks the main floor of the sanctuary in a dramatic, yet intimate way.  The building practically invites you to slow down, to notice and appreciate details that were created by hand in a time of simpler technology and methods.  Yet these details have endured, in a deliberate, elegant, meaningful way.  The natural light pouring into the First Christian Church sanctuary that morning generated a special drama which enhanced the character of the space and sealed it into my memory for a long time to come.

It is special buildings such as this which contribute to Lonoke’s uniqueness.  I enjoy telling people about our hometown.  Sometimes when I travel to the far corners of our home state for work, I encounter Arkansans who don’t know where Lonoke is located on a map.  By contrast, on a recent family road trip we randomly encountered two separate people a week apart in different areas of Mississippi who knew exactly where Lonoke is!  Often, it’s just a matter of reducing our pace long enough to pay attention to who and what is around us which creates an opportunity for deeper enrichment and knowledge.  Actor and director Ray McKinnon once observed, “When I go back home, my internal rhythms start slowing down.  That’s partly southern culture, but it’s also partly about living in a small town.”  

His observation resonates with me as I think about Lonoke and our deep roots.  If I am moving too fast, or if I’m only focused on myself, I could miss those brief moments that the light is shining in an overlooked place.  

As a small Delta town of 4,287 people, we must actively look for ways to unite in pursuit of healthy growth and connection.  I am reminded of the important words of B.J. Thompson, who once wrote, “Apathy exists whenever proximity is absent.”  If I reject an opportunity to reach out to my neighbor, I miss out on the richness of relationship and the privilege of cultivating community together.  I believe that proximity begets transparency, which begets visibility, raising our expectations and standards for future interactions.

Light has a way of calling attention to the hidden and the small.  Light stirs the shadows and draws hearts.  Light calls us to discover purpose and gives clarity to vision.  When we embrace a vision, we become responsible for its implementation and, ultimately, for its success.  Our influence is a privilege, and our next generation will hold us accountable for our stewardship of this moment and this momentum in Lonoke’s history.  Inspired by those who have gone before us, like the charter members of Lonoke’s First Christian Church congregation and the descendants who have stewarded the perpetuation of their legacy, I believe that the people of Lonoke will choose to build something that endures and stands as a testament to an overlooked place that dared to assert its potential and welcome a bright future.

Ryan Biles is an architect and has been privileged to participate in the preservation of historic structures throughout the state of Arkansas.  He and his wife Natalie, an Interior Designer, have called Lonoke home for thirteen years.  To see photos of the First Christian Church interior, search using the hashtag #LookAtLonoke on social media.

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