"What's that word for a smart person?" my 8-year-old son asks. "A nerd? Is that a mean thing to say?"
He is constructing a remote-control car, an early birthday gift from his aunt and uncle.
"Well " I tread carefully, not knowing the origin of this question and wanting my kid to own his quirks. "It doesn't seem so bad to me," I say. "There are all kinds of nerds, right? Book nerds, science nerds, computer nerds."
"Yeah," he says. "I want to be a computer nerd when I grow up."
Before there were computers in my son's life, there were churches. Naturally, my little boy liked the ordinary 2- and 3-year-old things — trucks, trains, construction vehicles, dirt. And perhaps not so naturally, he also spontaneously developed an intense interest in Cleveland's churches. He was, for a time, most definitely a church nerd.
My husband and I, already churchgoers and fans of historic architecture, humored this bizarre but charming little obsession. It began as a series of "What's that church called?" queries while driving throughout the city. It soon became an excuse to take different routes and, then, to venture inside the churches. Our little boy's excitement at visiting another beautiful work of architecture was contagious. "Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!" he'd exclaim as he ran toward a church.
Friends and relatives began indulging our son with books picturing churches, including his new favorite bedtime read, A Guide to Cleveland's Sacred Landmarks. He pored over the pages, memorizing the names. He built churches with blocks. He picked out churches to visit, favoring impressive historic examples such as University Circle United Methodist Church (formerly Epworth-Euclid) and Trinity Cathedral.
We were in deep now, so we joined in the fun of choosing future stops. Soon we'd traveled throughout Cleveland and its near suburbs. Many times, we found the kind of ethnic, racial and economic diversity we'd come to love at Our Lady of Peace, our own urban Catholic church near Shaker Square. Almost everywhere, we found open doors and outstretched arms.
Sometimes we went to Mass. But at non-Catholic churches, we would just try the doors and hope for good luck. Once, on our way to Sunday brunch at Lucky's Cafe, we peeked into neighboring St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral, that breathtaking onion-domed icon in Tremont. We were embarrassed to see that we'd opened the doors onto the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, with its incense, Old World chants and elaborate priestly garb. There was no shrinking back as those nearest the door insisted by gesture and smile that we come in and feel welcome. And so we did, and with wide eyes, we drank in a colorful cultural richness and community we had not foreseen behind the old building's tired brown doors.
At other churches, we found that rich history had not been enough to keep pace with the present. We hadn't realized before that some East Side Cleveland churches, such as Liberty Hill Baptist Church on Euclid Avenue, were originally synagogues. Judaism seems to have largely left the city and moved to eastern suburbs.
In an old Eastern European immigrant neighborhood, now predominantly African-American, foreboding chain-link fencing surrounded St. Casimir Church. Inside what felt like a makeshift fortress, a priest in his 90s celebrated Mass for maybe one or two dozen of us.
For our preschooler, these visits were the pure architectural thrill of steeples and soaring ceilings and colorful stained glass. My husband and I loved all that too, but we began to see more than buildings. We saw in the churches a fascinating intersection of tradition and change in Cleveland. For us, the churches brought to life layer upon layer of history and culture; and we saw that they continue to be a stage where the city's transitions and challenges play out.
Much has happened in just the five or six years since we made the rounds of Cleveland's churches. Some churches have undergone a name change or even a change in religious denomination, and the wrecking ball has claimed others. The Catholic Diocese, notably, closed a whopping number of urban churches in 2009 and 2010. St. Adalbert, a historically African-American Catholic parish, is now reopened after two locked and vacant years because the Vatican, in a rare move, overturned just a dozen or so of the involuntary closings. Now it's a spirited, joyful, welcoming community of believers that we still enjoy visiting.
And what does our son think of churches now? His interest was never religious, and sure enough, on the occasion of his First Communion this spring, he offered, "I'm not sure I really believe all this." None of us know the truth, I reassure him, but we do our best to discover it, and faith is about that sincere search.
Over the years Clevelanders have strived for this faith and truth in hundreds of ways, leaving a stunning, shifting mosaic of church buildings and communities that are the heart of so many of the city's neighborhoods. From prayers for the sick in nearby hospitals at a Little Italy church to fish fries at a West Side Romanian church and African-American churches in Buckeye, it's a beautiful thing. At least to this nerd.