Voices of the Faithful: The VanValkenburgh Legacy
A City on a Hill. That’s where I actually live as well as a city in which I’m commissioned to live. A City with a literal and figurative meaning: both beautiful. My literal city is Huntsville, Alabama. My figurative city is a version of Huntsville, Alabama living in God’s will.
I am a rarity; a seventh generation Huntsvillian raising an eighth generation right here within 3 miles of where all eight walked the same streets. The most distant person of the family that I remember hearing named was Captain John VanValkenburgh, who came to Huntsville from Indiana in the 1880’s after fighting for the Union in this city during the Civil War. He married a Huntsville girl from a longtime Huntsville family, as so many Union soldiers did. They built a handsome steamboat shaped house on Franklin Street across the street from Captain VanValkenburgh’s in-laws. Their son built a spectacular home on the corner of Franklin and Williams, one in which I am often expected to have resided my entire life. I, however, was raised two houses down in a cottage on Williams Street, which was also where my father was raised. All of these homes are within a stone’s throw of each other.
These generations’ accolades are mere glimpses of time gone by now: beautiful historic homes on Franklin, Eustis and Lowe; gravestones and monuments in Maple Hill Cemetery;
Tiffany stained glass windows in ballrooms, a hardware store on the downtown Square and a building materials business where the municipal jail now stands. When people ask me about the people or the places, I often tell the stories as if I were there way back when because, thanks to my mother’s love of history, I realize that to know where we are going we must first know where we’ve been.
These sepia toned images in the history books are not where my family’s legacy in Christ began though, at least not for me. Those came from a white church with purple doors, a little gentleman with his lady and a few Georgia peaches.
The White Church with Purple Doors
People are called by Christ. Those smart enough to listen to the call find a tug at their hearts during tough times, happy times, in a wonderful song, in a relationship built with another person or maybe even in a place. I am happy to say that many of those tugs have occurred for me in a particular place: a stuccoed white church with incredible stained glass windows and purple doors. My church has become a place where many of those I love all came to grow in Jesus, serve Him and, whether we all lived at the same times or not, breathed the same air.
A few years ago, a group of Trustees needed to replace doors at the Narthex of the church and wanted to consider something less bright than the purple doors. The purple had been chosen in the 1960’s to match one of the colors in the windows, as well as to symbolize the majesty of Christ. My sweet mother, historian of the church, argued that it was a statement – an invitation of sorts – and had become so engrained in our downtown Huntsville culture that to change the doors would be a mistake. She ultimately succeeded and new, more efficient doors – in the similar purple hue – were installed. You see, those purple doors are a recognized invitation to many. The “white church with the purple doors” is a North Star so to speak: a “Welcome” statement for every photographer, family, tourist, bridal party, skateboarder, or club-goer that walks by. Whenever you say it to someone else, they immediately know where to come to find a very present Earthly help in time of need.
The Little Gentleman and His Lady
Every Sunday, an elderly lady and her grandson would arrive at the corner of Randolph and Greene Street to attend services at that same stuccoed church. The little boy would hold her hand, then drop it in order to open the doors to the Narthex for his grandmother to enter.
They would walk down the beautiful center aisle all the way to the second pew on the pulpit side. There, the preacher would deliver a hearty message, the choir would sing and the glorious organ would ring powerful vibrations straight to Heaven’s gate.
That little boy would sit with his grandmother while his own mother sang from the soprano section of the choir loft, little knowing they would sing there together until she was well into her nineties. He would gaze at the windows with their amber lines, red knots and teal accents. It looked like bones and blood and knots. Or did they look more like hearts? Yes, hearts and flowers – Easter lilies right in the center of each window. The flowers of triumph. The flowers with the sweetest smell. Flowers that meant Jesus was alive! Yes, those red knots were definitely made from two hearts tied together surrounded by beautiful flowers of celebration.
After worship, the little boy would open the door again for his sweet grandmother and she would say, “My little gentleman.” His heart would beat proudly in his raised little chest and a smile would spread across his face. He had done good. He had made her happy. He was her gentleman.
Little did she know that each accolade, each nurturing touch and every affirmation of my father by his grandmother, Margaret Powell VanValkenburgh, would lead my father to be a strong, Godly husband to my mother for 51 years (and counting) as well as a gentle father to three girls. Christ grew in my father in that place, in worshipping with his grandmother and in the examples that were set for him inside that white stuccoed church with the purple doors. He would bring his wife there. Their children would be baptized there. He would grieve his grandmother, father and relatives there. He would see his children and grandchildren confirmed in Christ there. It was holy ground for over 200 years in a sea of changing times. A large ship that continued on the path towards Christ and, in spite of bumpy seas, never sank. “In the Heart of the City in the Name of Christ.”
The Georgia Peaches
In the 1960’s, a tall lady with a wide smile and elegant hands moved to Huntsville with her husband.
The lady’s husband had brought the family from Georgia due to Huntsville’s new aerospace industry, armed with a Master’s degree from Emory University and she with a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia. They were eager to settle in and start his career in Huntsville. Shortly thereafter, their niece came to live with them while on break from Emory-at-Oxford. The niece, a pretty majorette and scholar, had skipped her senior year in high school and went straight to college for two years, including summers, so a few months of practical work experience was a welcomed change.
As a technical writer at Brown Engineering, the young niece’s work took her to a restricted section of Redstone Arsenal through which any non-approved individuals required an escort holding admittance privileges for that sector. The little gentleman, now much older and in college at Auburn, had been chosen for that job because his father was a longtime Huntsvillian of whom no one would expect to be a Russian spy. As the young man escorted this pretty young scholar through the department, I became a faint possibility for the future.
They discovered that they both had been raised at First United Methodist Church; he, in Huntsville while she, in Claxton, Georgia. Both churches had gorgeous pipe organs and spectacular stained glass windows, though hers featured stories of the Bible. These stories were the ones she would tell her future children as only a scholar/historian can – with lots of detail and genealogy, while he would tell his children the same stories in song. His voice is magnificent, you see. Truly magnificent, as all the greats are; a voice that only gets better with age.
Happy Endings: All Are Welcome
They married amongst the stained glass Gospels, graduated from college and moved home to Huntsville. They bought a home, worked hard to start a business and raised a family of three girls. Inevitably, more Georgia peaches moved to Huntsville because family is everything and blood is thicker than water.
Every Sunday, the door would open and the young scholar and her gentleman would bring their girls to the second pew under the pulpit. They would join the other lovely Georgia peaches and all the aunts, uncles and cousins that attended, too. The girls would see their daddy singing with his mother, their grandmother, in the choir loft. The preacher would deliver a hearty sermon and they would walk out together to get to Picadilly’s fried chicken “before the Baptists ate it all.” That night, the entire family would come back to the white church with the purple doors to teach and serve the youth: including the youngest daughter who was not even in middle school and much too young to participate. They would play “Honey, if you love me, please smile” and then talk about ways that all people, despite any obstacles of age, race, wealth or intellect, could become the hands and feet of Jesus.
There would be mission trips and baptisms; contemporary worship buildings, nurseries and daycare facilities built; baptisms of children; funerals of friends and loved ones; partnerships with charities and initiatives to help others created there behind the purple doors, all in the “heart of the city in the name of Christ.” For over 200 years, every time the juice and Communion bread is served beneath the light of the stained glass with hearts and flowers, the preacher reminds us: ALL are welcome…
Sarah Lauren “VanValkenburgh” Kattos