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Kansas has a rich and diverse faith tradition

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, April 7, 2012, at 5:10 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, April 7, 2012, at 6:32 p.m.

For four generations, the Lawrence family has attended First Presbyterian Church in downtown Wichita.

Charles Lawrence, for whom Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was partially named, was one of the founders of the church in 1870. His great-grandson, Eric Lawrence, now sings in the choir.

“I think faith was a part of their lives. It influenced their lives and was the bedrock of who they were,” said Eric Lawrence, 50. “They were a people of faith and tradition. Obedience of God was a No. 1 priority and a major motivator in their lives.

“And yes, that tradition has been passed down through the family.”

This weekend, as thousands of Kansans take time to worship on Easter, many will do so in the tradition of their ancestors. Some will attend churches their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers helped build.

Others will contemplate attending church but will struggle with the memories it conjures. This year, that includes Wichitan Charles McAfee.

His great-grandfather was Cpl. Jacob McAfee, a Civil War veteran who, in 1865, gathered his wife and children in Ohio and headed west, searching for land and a place to settle. The family picked Wichita, where McAfee eventually became a real estate agent, developer, builder and architect.

He supported and helped build Calvary Baptist Church at 601 N. Water, a building now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And Charles McAfee not only married into the Sims family – which also helped support and build the church – he also designed the new church building at 2653 N. Hillside, where the funeral for his wife, Gloria, was held in 2010.

“It has not been very easy for me to go back,” McAfee said. “I am still not handling it very well. … This Sunday I am going to try. …

“There’s no question it is one of the most significant buildings in this town. Out of that church came the first African-American to serve on the City Council, the first black mayor and the first African-American to serve on the Wichita school board. Calvary has brought forth a lot of very talented people.”

Shortly after Calvary Baptist was founded, Wichita’s Congregation Emanu-El was formed, Rabbi Michael Davis said. Its members are observing Passover, which started Friday night and will continue through this week.

Davis said the Congregation was founded in 1885. He said part of the plat from which Wichita was formed included land that belonged to some of the congregation’s early families.

“The Jewish community is an integral part of Wichita, which has been almost since the beginning a wonderfully culturally diverse city,” Davis said.

The legacy of faith

The first test of faith on Kansas soil came as early as 1541, when Spanish conquistador Coronado explored the area that is now Kansas. One of his priests, Juan de Padilla, stayed behind to help spread Christianity and became what many now consider the first Christian martyr in the New World.

Five centuries later, Catholics are the largest denomination in the state, representing 27 percent of the population, followed by Methodists (14 percent) and Baptists (12 percent).

Three years ago, Tim Miller, a religion professor at the University of Kansas, began the Religion in Kansas Oral History Project. His mission has been to help record the religious groups who settled in Kansas but were less mainstream.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kansas had established several faith-based communities: Jewish farmers built enclaves in a half-dozen settlements near Dodge City; Exodusters — former slaves — flocked to western Kansas to start farming communities; the Pentecostal movement was born in Topeka.

In the summer of 1897, tiny Enterprise, near Abilene, developed the second Baha’i community in the Western Hemisphere as a dozen or so citizens met regularly in the parlor of Barbara Ehrsam’s home.

At the same time, Miller said, Spiritualism was fast becoming popular.

“The key idea was to communicate with the dead and the belief that barriers between this life and other dimensions are artificial,” he said.

It was a movement that quickly swept through Kansas and the rest of the nation. In Kansas, the last stronghold for Spiritualists is in the community of Wells, north of Salina.

Other Kansans, Miller said, became Lawsonians, named after professional baseball player Alfred Lawson, while still others became followers of Roger Babson, an economist who lived near Eureka and developed a reputation by successfully predicting the Great Depression.

But Kansas is best known for its mainstream religion and for the Kansans who built the state based on their faith.

Much of Kansas’ religious history is mired in conflict.

Starting in 1854, Congregationalist, Methodist and Baptist abolitionists flocked to the Kansas Territory to wrestle the land from pro-slavery supporters. In the midst of that upheaval came Kansas’ most iconic figure, John Brown.

More than 15,000 Mennonites came to the United States from Russia between 1874 and 1884; of those, 5,000 settled in Kansas.

They formed communities at Goessel, Inman, Buhler, Moundridge and elsewhere in central Kansas. They also brought hardy winter wheat that would thrive on the prairie.

Volga Germans from Russia built Catholic strongholds near Hays. Perhaps their most famous landmark is in the town of Victoria: the St. Fidelis Church, also known as the Cathedral of the Plains.

In more recent decades, Kansas — like much of the nation — has experienced a decrease in the number of residents who regularly attend organized religious services.

“Kansas mirrors the country closely,” Miller said. “Nationally, mainstream religion is not losing membership, but their percentages of population is decreasing. The biggest numbers are going to no religion.

“Up until the 1990s, the polls reflected between 85 and 90 percent of people having some religious identification. That’s down now to more like 80 percent. “

Robert Linder, a professor of history at Kansas State University and whose speciality is the study of religion, agrees the state is changing.

“In the early days of Kansas, Christians celebrated Easter with a seriousness and gratitude and it has all been weakened now, like everything else has with religious life in the past decade,” Linder said. “Christianity has taken a serious hit in society.”

Keeping the faith

In the 1980s movie “Places in the Heart,” there is a scene toward the end of the movie where all the loved ones — both living and dead — gather to worship for communion in a small rural church.

In many ways, Eric Lawrence said, that’s how he feels when he goes to worship at First Presbyterian at 525 N. Broadway.

“When I stand up and sing in the choir loft, I see that huge stained glass window dedicated by my great-great-uncle Robert Lawrence and I sometimes have to swallow hard and fight back tears,” he said. “I am overcome with joy and sadness that so many of my loved ones are no longer here — to represent the Lawrence family is a very powerful experience for me.

“I can feel the presence of those people. It is something that is bigger than myself. I can truly feel their presence – and God’s presence – and see them sitting out there.”

And for it to be Easter is even more special, he said. As a boy, it meant wearing a new suit and bowtie, a big family get-together after church followed by an Easter Egg hunt.

Now, it is something more.

“What we are celebrating is Christ’s resurrection,” Lawrence said. “What it really means is rebirth. It means new life — it is our own rising with Christ.

“All of us can look upon this as a season of newness.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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