Content warning: This piece mentions rape (non-graphic).
It was golden hour as we made the long, dull drive to Winnipeg, Manitoba from Fargo, North Dakota. We had just gotten back together after being broken up for a few months which also meant we were back in the honeymoon stage. Having been together for a year previously, we knew we just overcame a bump in the road and thought we were destined to be together.
I’ve driven past Union Point Church dozens of times, but never stopped. The white shiplap building that divides Highway 75 has been around since 1887, but, as its dishevelled sign on the front states: “destroyed by fire 1939, Rebuilt in 1940.”
The first time I went inside was in 2016 — with him.
Getting away for a weekend together, alone, was a struggle. His conservative Christian family thought going away for a weekend — let alone sharing a bed — without being married was taboo. The secrecy was endearing, though. It felt like we were the only ones who knew where we were and what we were doing.
There’s no driveway or parking lot leading up to the church, just a raised section of the ditch to drive across and pull into the boulevard. The paint on the sign in front is chipped and hard to read, and even though it says the name of the church on it, Google Maps just labels it as “Small Church.”
May 27, 2001
This place is amazing, I never thought the door would be open so that we would be able to look inside. It’s so cool the things that you discover on the side of the highway.
The inside is austere. The floor creaks and the single stained-glass window illuminates the entire room with golden light. The aisle is short, only about 13 pews deep. We’d sit down next to each other, then get up, and sit back down to count how many bums we could fit in a pew, seeing if we could fit our families in there for a small wedding.
We found the notebooks sitting in a plastic Tupperware bin on one of the pews. There were two. The one with a green cover was full, and the blue one had a few dozen pages unfilled. We read through some of the letters together and decided to write one to each other, but not read them right away. Throughout our relationship we had exchanged letters to each other often.
In the church, we wrote in the same book. I went first, flipping the page over for him to write on the back when I was finished. In a year we would go back and read what we wrote to each other.
Meeting Linda felt like meeting an old friend for coffee. She’s one of the caretakers for the church and got married in it in 1984. Her soft voice paired with a loving, motherly smile made me feel like I could tell her anything — I wanted to blurt out how he and I wanted to get married there, too.
She told me her family decided to keep the church open 24/7 to help avoid vandalism. She said they would find bullet holes or broken windows when the door was locked at night. When they left it open and people could go inside whenever they wanted, the damage stopped.
I asked her about the journals, wondering if she had read my letters — if she had read his. She said her family weren’t the ones to start them; it was a man named Cornelius. I remember seeing his name actually, he had signed the journal once thanking everyone for writing in it.
“I saw the response,” she said. “So, we just kept it going.”
April 4, 2001
Hey man! We need more paper. Just stopped in to wish everyone passing through a great day. Stay well.
The church smells like old wood. Like when you take a book out from the library and can smell the pages as you flip through them. My friends and I used to do that in elementary school — stick our noses really close and run our thumb across the pages so you could smell the stale air it blew in your face.
There’s water damage on the ceiling and a pile of woodchips where a mouse clearly made a home under one of the pews. There are two Bible verses on the wall behind the altar. They’re painted in blue writing on white wood cut-outs made to look like scrolls. Those are the only hangings that provide some type of contrast on the brown walls. Without them, the combination of brown floors, walls, and ceiling makes it feel like you’re in a cardboard box fort made for adults.
It’s a secure fort, though. There’s an overwhelming sense of calm. It’s quiet, the only sound is the light hum from the highway.
April 25, 2005
I miss this place. I love the smell in here. I feel safe in this place.
The sunset was perfect the day we were there. The farm field set the stage for a horizon that looked close enough to run to. I remember taking a picture and posting it to my Snapchat Story before leaving, captioning it, “see you in a year.” I couldn’t wait for him to read what I wrote:
August 1, 2016
I love you more than love. With God, we can get through anything. I cannot wait to be your wife one day. Stop asking me what I’m writing! 🙂 You are my forever, my favourite. From the ground up, baby. I love you, I love you, I love you.
We held hands while we drove away — his thumb stroking my hand. Vance Joy’s Georgia played like a soundtrack to the vision of us getting engaged in my head, occasionally being interrupted by us looking at each other and smiling. I always said I wanted our engagement to be a complete surprise, but I couldn’t wait until the next time I found myself on that highway towards the church.
It’s strange now to know anyone can go in there, walk over to the light blue Tupperware bin, pick up the coil-bound notebook with the blue cover, and find our names in it. Rather, my full name and his initials. He was more private than me in that sense, but after speaking with John Evans it makes sense.
John F. Evans holds a Master of Arts in Teaching Writing, Master of Arts in English, and Doctorate in Education, Writing, and Literary Arts. He’s also a council member for the International Association for Journal Writing and co-authored Expressive Writing: Words that Heal.
In layman’s terms: Dr. Evans knows his shit about writing, and literally studies the science behind journaling.
When I told him about the journals and what people were writing, he said it sounded like they were full of what’s called expressive writing.
“Expressive writing in the medical literature, really is about writing that’s not necessarily meant for anyone else’s eyes, but it’s meant just to express feelings, deep-seated feelings and emotions, thoughts about something really emotional,” he said.
It still seems irrational to me that, if expressive writing isn’t meant for anyone else’s eyes, why are people writing such personal things in a small, unlocked church in southern Manitoba where anyone can find it and read it?
June 20, 2004
…Things only god really dark from there. I started hanging out with the wrong people got into alot of things that are not right. I got raped, worst thing ever. And I was a virgin. I felt like my life was ruined. I hated guys for a while but I wanted to get over it so I started having sex with quite a few guys. I felt so guilty. I knew it was wrong. I feel like my whole life is ruined…
Linda and I got to talking about why we think people write in journals. I’ve written in a journal my whole life. I have old ones with a lock and key that are filled with elementary secrets of boys I had crushes on and friends I hated for liking the same boy as me. I even remember an entry where I talk about this one boy, dating me and my best friend at the same time (“dating” should be taken very loosely there — it was the sixth grade.)
That journal is locked, but the church notebooks are wide open. You could write that you murdered someone in there, and anyone could read it.
Aside from when I went with him, I’ve never run into anyone there, yet the books are full. Linda said she never runs into anyone there either. It’s mysterious in a way — hundreds of people coming and going yet, no one sees each other.
My heart sank when she told me the first journal was stolen. It rose again when she said she had been typing up the journals to preserve them. She started before the first one was stolen. Originally, she was scanning them to her computer — she said she liked to see people’s handwriting, but it got too tedious.
I asked her if she had any favourites, if any particular letter stood out to her. She told me about a woman who wrote a full page about her struggles. And then there was Rose, she said. Rose was the opposite.
“She never wrote much, just like ‘it’s a good day,’ or something.”
Linda sent me the entire typed copy of the first journal, and I spent hours going through it when I got home. Rose wrote in it eight times beginning on July 20, 1998 before her last entry on July 3, 1999.
June 15, 1999
A place to go and pray and be happy and have peace to think happy and love yourself. Thank you. Lord bless my children and grandchildren. Help me make it through the day.
Apparently, there is a science behind why people do expressive writing. Dr. Evans explained how one of the things that gets triggered in our brains by an emotional event is our amygdala. He said the amygdala is like the alarm clock of the brain. When the amygdala is sounding the alarm, the body gets flooded with cortisol and adrenaline and the hippocampus is too overwhelmed to take in any new information, which affects cognitive ability.
He said writing can help calm the amygdala. Now, obviously when I’m panicking, I’m not thinking, ‘oh my God, I need my amygdala to chill.’ But Dr. Evans explained that humans just know they need to express whatever they’re feeling and, in doing that, calm will set in.
“It often is something that people have been ruminating about for a while,” he said. “Maybe dreaming about or anxious about and sometimes interferes with what they’re doing and getting it down on paper is a way of making the abstract concrete.”
(Sometime between March 26 and April 3, 2005)
Hi mom, I wish you would talk to me. I’m sorry that we have not been getting along but maybe we can talk and work things out. We may not be talking right now and we may have said some things that were hurtful but I know that I am sorry and you may want to feel better about our relationship too! I have done lots of things wrong, and you may not think very well of me. You don’t see how much I have accomplished because of our bad times we could not hold together and communicate together so that we might have stuck through it. I wish we could have. And you are a good mother you just don’t accept change well though. I wish you wouldn’t wait so long to talk to me. I’m ready to get married to you want to miss that? And I want kids! Are you going to miss the first two years of their life because you wouldn’t talk to me and you missed out on that. I know dad will be there. Do you want to be? Anyway its cold in here. Love you. P.S. pray for us, you and me, because thats what I pray each night for, family
Something must have triggered my amygdala on December 22, 2016 when I went back to the church. He and I had broken up a few weeks before and whatever chemicals were flooding my brain were telling me to go back and read his letter.
I took Brittany with me. She knew every detail of my relationship with him and was a friend to both of us, but I never told her about the letters. I didn’t actually tell her where I wanted to go until she committed because I was afraid she’d say no.
She met me in the Staples parking lot on Pembina Highway because it was close to my work. We filled up the car with gas and drove 30 minutes outside the city to the church.
I felt sick to my stomach. What did he write? What if he secretly proposed to me in the letter? Would I cry? That’s initially why I wanted Brittany there. Someone who knew the ins-and-outs of our relationship and would understand why I was crying over a guy who had now broken up with me three times.
We parked on the side of the highway instead of pulling in because I was afraid my car would get stuck in the deep snow. She took a picture of me walking towards the church and posted it to her Snapchat — I knew he would see it — I wanted him to know I went back.
Nothing changes inside the church from summer to winter other than the fact that there’s no heat in there and it’s fucking cold. The sense of calm remains, though, and my nausea left as fast as the blood in my fingertips. I wasn’t afraid to read his letter anymore.
Good thing, because it was really underwhelming. I didn’t cry. I was actually kind of mad he didn’t write anything more.
August 1, 2016
Beautiful church. Maybe I’ll get married here one day. She’s sitting right across from me right now and she’s not allowed to see what I’m writing 🙂 We looked at wedding rings for the first time this weekend and I can’t tell you how excited I am to marry this girl. She is amazing. We’ve been through everything together and I can’t imagine life without her.
He spoke more about himself and less about me. I didn’t expect it. Still, I took the time to write to him again. Maybe he would see Brittany’s Snapchat and be curious about what I wrote, too:
December 22, 2016
You dumped me over text. Somehow, I think I’d take you back.
You begging for me back after 4 months of me forcing myself to get over you. I slowly let down my wall and fell in love with you again even though everyone told me not to. You said things would be different, and they were. You were everything I ever wanted, and you dumped me again. How is this fair? Why does god do this? I will always love you. Always. I’ve barely cried. You won’t talk to me, not that I’ve tried. I’m just in shock that it’s happened again. I hope you read this one day. And if you do, don’t be afraid this time to call me. I love you. I’ll always love you. I will always pray for you, and maybe one day we’ll be together again.
My hands are frozen. Goodbye for now.
Not all the letters in the journals are personal. Some of them are just a signature. It’s a range from people saying they just got engaged to people saying their life is about to change because they’re getting a divorce — those ones I find particularly sad. People keep coming back to write, just like I did. And like I will continue to do.
Closure is weird. These public journals are riddled with all sorts of it: the satisfaction of finally pulling off the highway and going inside, the break-up letters, the kids who kept coming back but only at night because it made them feel rebellious and scared, and mostly, people writing about their faith.
For some of the people who have written, it’s just a building. Four brown walls with a creaky floor, stale air, ceiling damage, and some mouse shavings.
Linda said there’s one service there a year, so aside from the fact that this is still technically a functioning church, I think most people see it as a safe space. You can see the shift from religion to refuge as the entries become more recent. Linda said she thinks people write about what they see the last person write, so each book almost has its own theme. I think it’s clear people just want a quiet place to find peace and release feelings in a space where you think no one can find you — or attach you to your words.
Everyone who has written there is part of a community. “I think Union Point is a true church, because it’s for everybody,” Linda said. I love that.
September 17, 2005
For those of you who are reading this now, you’ve read it before. This book is filled with the same and its incredible to read. I too have wondered for years what was beyond these walls. Why now, I don’t know, same goes for you, why now? Why does it take so long for something so simple? And why is there so much mystery with the unknown? I could sit here for hours thinking and writing. That’s why I love this place. It takes you there.
“I think what really contributes to people opening up to this is how they feel safe in the space, and some people probably write there because they think that God can read what [they’re] writing,” Dr. Evans said.
There is a clear connection between being in a church and writing about faith, but what I saw a lot of in these journals is people who don’t believe in God, and if they do, they’re wrestling with their faith and seeking answers.
They come to the church and write. They get angry at God, ask for forgiveness, pray for others, or pray for themselves. Religion may divide people, but Union Point Church has found a way to quietly bring people together without judgement. They work through their life’s trials on their own, in silence, in the empty pages of coil-bound notebooks.
September 14, 2007
I’m here right now, in the middle of the night. It’s a little creepy at first, until you get inside, at which point you feel rather safe. I was hoping to get some thinking done, to sort some stuff out, but not much is getting sorted. It is cold out tonight, and the drone of passing trucks is becoming soothing. I will be back in time. There is much to do. There are two roads, the right one and the wrong one. I must determine which road I travel.