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We shape our buildings, and they shape us

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A view of the American Fork Presbyterian Church.

A view of the American Fork Presbyterian Church.

Tricia Simpson

The difference between an old building and a building that is historic is what happened on the inside. Winston Churchill famously said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."

I have used this quote many times over the years, and not until recently did I come to understand the full context of his powerful statement. This wasn’t just one more quotable quip from the prolific Churchill. It was notable because he was referring to the rebuilding of the House of Commons that had been bombed regularly as a high-profile target during World War II.

The full quote from Churchill reads, “On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.”

Churchill understood the power of preserving and restoring a building that was really the people’s house. He knew the rubble represented more than steel and concrete. The building was the vessel that held the echoes of critical debates, the vision of freedom, hope for the future and the very soul of the nation. Buildings do that.

For nearly 140 years, the American Fork Community Presbyterian Church has worked to build and maintain the outside of its church so that the inside could be a safe harbor for souls, a place of learning and instruction and a space for help and healing for the people of Utah County.

The first cornerstone was laid in 1878, and the historic nature of the space has been worked on ever since. Most notably, in the early days was the arrival of Ada Kingsbury, who came west with the mission to teach and provide education to the children living in American Fork. It was a heroic quest to venture from her comfortable and structured educational interests in the east to sojourn to the unknown and rural west. With no formal public education system in place, Kingsbury did what all great teachers do — teach. Within the walls of the church, many had their first introductions to learning, reading, writing and arithmetic.

Inside the walls of the church, the faithful were encouraged to do good in the community and become better people in the process. That is what makes it historic. No one can measure the number of lives, families and community members saved, influenced or changed for the better within the walls of a simple church building.

As with all buildings of historic significance, the American Fork Community Presbyterian Church has had some colorful moments. Many will recognize the building as the church in the iconic movie "Footloose" and the popular TV series "Touched by an Angel." Such cameo appearances give the building notoriety and some social media juice. But much like an old uncle telling a funny family story, this part of the church’s past provides color, but it doesn’t capture the power of its history or essence of what it really is.

With echoes of the past reverberating from the roof, the American Fork Community Presbyterian Church is shepherded today by a young, visionary leader who, not unlike the those that laid the cornerstone 140 years ago, is committed to serving everyone in the community. (More on the roof in a moment.)

The church not only serves its members but also supports a congregation of Congolese refugees of a different faith who worship there each Sunday. Twelve-step programs for those facing addiction meet regularly within the walls, people in poverty gather to learn the principles of prosperity and the entire community will soon be able to enjoy a new playground with dedicated space for children with autism. The new community playground will be dedicated Saturday, July 21.

The age of the building is an issue. The roof is leaking and in need of great repair. The church has launched a fundraising effort to be able to fix the roof as it approaches its 140th anniversary. Protecting the outside is important so that what happens on the inside can continue. The roof is worth protecting because the community is worth saving.

I sense something Churchillian in Pastor Mike’s call to save the building. He knows the church structure matters because a building from 1878 has shaped those who have entered its doors for 140 years, and he believes it can continue to shape individuals for generations to come. That is what makes the American Fork Community Presbyterian Church historic now and for the future.