When I was growing up in Huntington, Long Island, New York, we were members of the Old First Presbyterian Church at 125 Main Street. The church was (and is) an imposing edifice, a historical building with a long history.
My father had been a stalwart Presbyterian since the age of 11 and the church was in his blood. My father was Clerk of Session, my mother sang in the choir, we all went to Sunday School, and when we were in High School, we all were part of TUXIS.
TUXIS was our church youth group. The name is less an acronym than a symbol – the “X” in the middle standing for Christ and the letters surrounding it meaning something like “You and I together for Training and Service with Christ as the Center.” It was old-fashioned even then – but to be honest, I don’t think most of us even thought about what the name meant. For about 20 years, from the late 1960s and through the 1980s, TUXIS was the place to be on Sunday evenings, from 7:00pm – 9:00pm – no matter what your religion, or even if you had a religion at all. It was our community.
This past October, Dr. Stan Dransfield, who had been the minister during most of my time at the church, passed away. One of his sons “discovered” Facebook, found a few former TUXIS members and proposed a reunion. Being a logistical sort of person, I volunteered to try to organize it. The response was overwhelming. And this past summer, about 40 former TUXIS members (and one former youth minister) gathered at the Old First Church to celebrate, to worship, to share community and to remember.
I had not been inside the church since my mother’s funeral in 1996…and then it was just briefly. So when I walked into the side door by the Parish Hall, the sense of memory was visceral and strong. The side door where we would wait for my father to talk to “just one more person” during coffee hour.
The smell of the wood floor of the Parish Hall, and the stage where we would put on our Sunday School plays. And the huge kitchen with the giant 8-burner stove and hundreds of plates and cups for church suppers.
The photographs of the previous ministers – all lined up along the wall along with the bulletin boards announcing paryer groups and various events. The old bell that had cracked while ringing one Sunday.
Behind the stage was the “Cradle Roll” for the babies and underneath the Parish Hall were the old Sunday School rooms and a tunnel that led to the “newer” part of the church – built in 1958. I have a vague recollection of them putting in the block with the dates when they built that addition.
The new addition was built with expansion of the Youth Program in mind – there was a full-size basketball court, another kitchen, various classrooms and a “TUXIS” room.
Up the main stairs, there was the choir room – still looking exactly the same with the robes hanging in their compartments and the shelves of choir music and folders.
The Sanctuary is the oldest part of the church – and at one time, it was the entire building. Not much has been altered. At some point, the seat cushions were added. A chandelier has been hung from the ceiling and, contrary to the traditional austere Presbyterian decor, a cross was installed over the altar about 10 years ago. I spent most of my time in the sanctuary in the choir loft, where I sang alto in the church choir. A beautiful new pipe-organ was installed in 1982 and the choir loft redesigned, just in time for my wedding. (The wedding was lovely, the marriage rather ill-fated…)
What was TUXIS and why was it so important? Well, it was a community. A community of young people from varying circumstances and belief systems, who were at various places in their spiritual journey. And it was a safe place to come and feel that you mattered. We were fortunate to have wonderful youth ministers who built that community, who listened to young people with great consideration and love and who showed us, by word and deed, what it meant to “be the hands and feet” of Christ. Many pictures were shared of those times. We had camping and beach trips, trips into New York City, work-sessions, presentations and performances, discussions, singing and dancing, tears and laughter.
We put on our own “Contemporary Worship Service” once a month, featuring more modern songs and our own singing group called “The Main Street Singers.” There was even a “Bible-a-thon” to raise money.
We had three youth ministers during “my” TUXIS time. Don Dempsey was hired at the beginning of my 9th grade year. There were so many of us that we had a separate group for the 9th grade called “Niners.” Don was 24, young, idealistic and rather a hippie. There were stories about him mowing a peace symbol into the front lawn of his house and an incident where the police were called to the manse, because the neighbors didn’t realize he had moved in yet and thought his gathering of TUXIS young people (complete with candles because the electric had not been turned on yet) was a bunch of hippie-weirdos. Turns out the stories were true – I got in touch with Don, who is still a Presbyterian minister and he had many memories. We all loved him, but he was summarily fired after 9 months. The session then hired Howard Warren. Howard was “my” TUXIS leader and my brother Doug’s as well.
He was a gentle man, in his mid-thirties, who seemed to know how to handle both the radical young people and the stuffy and staid members of the session. He had a way of leading us to the “right” decision without us feeling like we were being told what to do. After Howard left, we had Bill Humphries who came to us right out of seminary, with his very young wife, Cindy. Bill was youth minister for about 10 years, and was the TUXIS leader for my younger brothers Mike and Tom.
One very important person who could not attend was a woman name Suzie Viemeister, who was like the mother of us all. She came on every trip, was there every Sunday evening and her home was a place of refuge for a number of young people who had had a falling out with their parents and needed a place to crash. She is in her 80s now, but still spry and joyful.
When we all finally showed up at the church, there were many hugs, many remembrances and some tears. Howard – loved by so many of us – passed away from complications due to AIDS in 2003. Ironically, he turned out to be far more radical than Don Dempsey ever was. After he came out of the closet (“exploded out” as some say!) he became an outspoken advocate for inclusion of all in the church. The Presbytery tried to silence him ; they tried to take away his ministry (my father was furious at this) but Howard persevered and was known as “God’s Glorious Gadfly” for his unrelenting insistence that the Kingdom of Heaven was for everyone. (Read more about Howard HERE.)
Some of us had gathered for dinner the night before. Now we shared more food and memories and music and had a communal worship led by Bill Humphries.
We were then lucky enough to have a brief talk about the history of the church from John Collins, who was a member of TUXIS and is very much involved with the Huntington Historical Society. And…we got to climb up into the steeple, which, since the installation of the new organ, now involves a trap door over the choir room, a scramble above the ceiling of the sanctuary and then a rickety climb to the top. It was pretty awesome…I hadn’t been up there since I was a very little girl.
Everyone who attended the reunion was deeply moved by the gathering. And I was near tears when I was given a card, signed by everyone, thanking me for organizing the event. It was a wonderful way to recall a very important part of my life.
At the end of the worship service, people wanted to sing “Pass It On.” This is a cheesy song, with a cheesy tune and lyrics that don’t quite scan. But we all used to sing it with great gusto and I had a guitar and we all sang it again. I am not ashamed to say that I broke up a little when we got to the last verse. Thank you, dear Divine Spirit, for the fellowship of TUXIS.
It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s Love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on.
What a wonderous time is spring,
When all the trees are budding
The birds begin to sing, the flowers start their blooming;
That’s how it is with God’s love,
Once you’ve experienced it.
You want to sing, it’s fresh like spring,
You want to pass it on.
I wish for you my friend
This happiness that I’ve found;
You can depend on Him
It matters not where you’re bound,
I’ll shout it from the mountain top!
I want my world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on.