March 11, 2000

When my first husband and I moved into this house in 1976 we became the second homeowners to occupy a dwelling in the new Susquehanna Township subdivision of Woodridge Estates. (My electric bill still comes with “Lot 54” in parentheses after my street address.) Of the three such neighborhoods of similar design and cost that took shape around that time, it was, and (in my opinion) remains, the most attractive.

The house is on the south side of the main street of the development. It cuts into what was the lower portion of the Reichert farm from Progress Avenue back to Reichert Road. When I came here, Lot 54 was a parcel more or less 100 feet square (the minimum lot size) that bordered an 8-acre field owned by the family of a woman who occupied a cottage along Progress Avenue. Her son had built a large ranch house on a rise just south of the cottage, also close to the road.

The field was beautiful. Although it had been allowed to go fallow, wild grasses sprang up which danced in the breeze and attracted butterflies and songbirds. Every year somebody came with a haymow to cut down the vegetation, which then lay for a time in undulating windrows before being baled and carted away.

Before we had been here a year, the owners of the field approached everyone on our side of the street (by spring, ten families). They needed some cash, and proposed to sell us each a strip of the field from our common property line out about 25 feet and the width of our lots. Lot 54’s portion cost $600, a sum we had to borrow, since we had become landowners in the first place on a very tight newlyweds’ budget. The entire field was available, we were informed, for about $80,000, an amount then of astronomical proportions.

It had been my hope (rather callous, I’ll admit) that the family would continue to need cash every year (they were keeping someone in a nursing home, as I recall) and we could nickel and dime them all the way across the field. But we never heard from them again. In 1992 a neighbor encountered a surveying party trying to determine where to put their flags in relation to his storage shed, which he had casually placed “out back,” unaware that it was straddling the new property line. A “For Sale” sign went up in the field (the asking price now more than $80,000 an acre), and I began checking almost compulsively to be sure that the developer I wrote about yesterday hadn’t slapped his bird-of-prey logo on the sign. (“Build to Suit” it always says, as if a broad green swath were not already quite suitable).

Eventually, the sign was changed to read “Future Home of the Susquehanna Valley Church of God.” This, to me, was the least harmful thing (after doing nothing) that could happen to the field. A church is a good neighbor, I figured. The north side of Woodridge already had one, separated from those neighbors’ back yards by a creek at the bottom of a steep, tree-covered ravine.

Construction on the new church began in the summer of 1993. It was noisy and created great clouds of dust, and I spent more and longer afternoons at the community pool four miles away than I would have otherwise. We’d been mailed a copy of the site plan, which showed a parking lot between the road and their octagonal building, which would be situated about 125 feet east of my house, directly behind my neighbors’ pool, out of my line of sight.

The area directly behind my house remained open field (part of it, even, a protected wetland), and the congregation actually improved the lay of the land, sculpting it into a pleasant lea that slopes down into a swale lined with fir trees (which, at this point, are still quite small). I named this “The Vista,” and for the last six years I’ve regarded it as my personal nature preserve, the congregation’s new gazebo at the far edge of the property my own private outdoor chapel.

They rarely use this or the adjacent picnic grove, even on Sundays, I remember only one gazebo wedding and one outdoor service. I even attended the gazebo dedication service and sent a monetary contribution in memory of the member for whom it is named. They seem to have few events during the week, either during the day or the evening. In nearly all respects, they have been a good neighbor.

Thus I was quite startled last night when, at about 8:15, my windows began to shake and the whole house to vibrate. I was folding laundry in the bedroom which looks out on the back yard . I assumed that the noise was coming from the house of my neighbors to the west, childless lawyers who keep their stereo speakers against their picture window and have been known to entertain into the wee hours of the weekend.

This noise, however, was unusually loud. I went downstairs, out through the garage, and determined that the sound was coming from the church. The stained glass window of their worship space (which faces out toward our back yards) was aglow, and I could see a number of cars in the parking lot.

The denomination’s website outlines their history – roots in nineteenth century Indiana, influenced by the holiness and Pietist movements which emphasize Biblical fundamentalism and direct religious experiences over institutional formalism. “Worship services tend to be informal, accentuating expository preaching and robust singing,” we are told.

Personally, I think the singing is a little TOO “robust” when the individual notes and even the words being sung can be discerned by someone in another building 125 feet away. Sitting in our family room, which is on the other side of the house, I was unable to enjoy the television program I wanted to see, although I could match many of the notes emanating from the church on my piano.

At 10:00 I made a phone call, even though I knew I would probably get an answering machine. (I had the office phone number and the pastor’s home phone number on a refrigerator magnet they passed out in a “Welcoming Ourselves to Your Neighborhood” packet they left on everyone’s doorknob.) The announcement instructed me to wait for the beep and to have a nice day. I began my message by noting that I’d had a nice day, but the evening was certainly no pleasant interlude before sleep.

Things seemed to die down around 11:00. I took a shower, read a little, and then went to sleep.

I was jolted awake at 12:05 by the deep rumble of drums and blaring of horns that had been going on earlier. (OK, maybe not blaring, but pretty darn loud. As I said, I could sing along with the melody. The windowpanes in the glass doors of a bookcase were rattling.) At 12:25 I got dressed, grabbed a flashlight, and proceeded through my backyard, up over the swale and across the meadow to the front of the building. The air was warm and still, and as I approached, the rumbling got boomier and boomier.

Through the clear glass of the front door I could see the band arranged on the raised altar at the back of the worship space. (This is an open area which serves both for services with moveable chairs for seating, and fellowship events, when large tables are set up.) The band consisted of three drum sets, some brass, keyboards, and vocalists. And they were INTO it. A man running a vacuum cleaner between the rows of chairs was also singing and dancing a little as he maneuvered the machine. No one heard me ring the doorbell or bang on the doors.

Eventually I caught the eye of the man with the vacuum cleaner. He came to the door, opened it, and said a cheery hello.

“It’s way past midnight,” I began. “This music is shaking my house and has been all

“Well,” the man said. “You should have said something. We can’t read your mind.”

“I AM saying something. I called at ten o’clock but no one answered the phone. I left a message.”

“Oh, well, we’ll be done here soon.”

“No,” I said, “you’re done now.” (That’s the tenth grade study hall supervisor in me coming out.)

Indeed, the band had stopped and seemed to be unplugging and packing up.

I came back home, played several rounds of computer Tetris to unwind, and finally fell into a fitful sleep.

By 8:30 this morning I could see that the parking lot was once again filled. I sorted and organized the stack of magazines that accumulates in the kitchen (my regular second weekend of the month chore), did some other maintenance tasks, and then pulled out some material for my novel project.

A little after 9:30 the noise (by now I was certainly not willing to call it music) began again. The neighborhood, and our household, is less quiet during a Saturday morning than a Friday night, but even with moderate traffic up and down our street, Lynn’s hair dryer, the washing machine, and March Madness basketball on the television, the rumble from the church slid in under everything and became an insistent and intrusive backbeat.

By 11:30 I had done everything I could of household chores that did not require excellent concentration. Truth to tell, I was also so rattled that I could not clear my mind of anger and resentment. I felt as if I were trapped in traffic beside a custom car stereo system with kick-ass bass, and no hope that the light would ever change.

I packed up some research materials and headed out for a quiet library. On my way, I stopped at the church. (In the back of my mind was the thought they might be having a sub sale or something. I could pick up dinner and contribute to their ministry while complaining about it.)

When I got to the church entrance, it seemed that things were breaking up. People were leaving, the chairs were being arranged at tables spread with banquet cloths, and cooking odors permeated the air. The first person I saw was the man who had answered the door last night, and across the room I spied the pastor (whom I had met several times).

The pastor came over to greet me. He indicated that the event was the quadrennial convention of the Hispanic Council, a mission arm of the Church of God. (Indeed, I had noticed that the pastor, the vacuum cleaner guy, and I were the only non-Hispanic people in the building as Spanish-language conversation swirled around us.)

“Pastor is the president of the Eastern Hispanic Council,” said the vacuum cleaner guy. I wondered why the Hispanic Council had a decidedly white bread, mid-western Swedish president.

I reiterated my concerns about the noise. The pastor assured me that this happens only every four years and that they were now finished for this year. After lunch people would be heading home. “Some of them travel quite far for this,” he said.

Regarding the noise level, the pastor said that he was sorry if it seemed loud, but that was how these people worship. When I mentioned that there was a township noise ordinance, he remarked that they were a church and that they could do anything they liked during worship, “and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself.”

I commented that the portion of the noise that began just after midnight appeared not to be worship, but a jam session. The pastor said that yes, the band was practicing for the next day’s event. But, he reminded me, that was how “these people” (the phrase was beginning to stick out) express themselves, and wasn’t it wonderful to be able to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.

“Besides,” said the vacuum cleaner guy, “wouldn’t you rather have these people here in this church than out on a street corner selling drugs?”

I wondered if those were any person’s only two choices for a Friday night’s activity, even for “these people,” but I didn’t say anything. I figured that we had a reached a point where no more meaningful communication could be accomplished. The pastor urged me to check with the township to see if he wasn’t right about joyful noises during worship. I said that I certainly would, and I left as “those people” were sitting down to their noon meal.

It’s Saturday night now. I’m aware of the church only by the soft lights that illuminate its steeple and the glare of the false moon made by the tall post light that stands above the picnic grove. All is quiet over there, and within Woodridge.

Yet something in me continues to rumble and vibrate, and I am not at rest.

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