By Jeff Brumley
The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston went to court this week to force a group of parishioners out of the church it is trying to close, along with many others.
National Public Radio reported that 100 members of St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church have been holding a vigil in the parish slated for closing to help the archdiocese, citing shortages in priests and laypeople, to save money.
But devoted Catholics in the Northeast aren’t the only ones desperate to hang on to their churches. Many Protestants, regardless of geography, can be just as determined stay in buildings regardless of size, dwindling attendance or tight finances.
And that goes for Baptists, too, said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
‘Where your grandma was resting’
“Baptists have consistently been attached to their buildings,” Leonard said.
This is true in part because the earliest Baptist church buildings were in rural locations and small towns. Almost always they had cemeteries.
“You could look out the window and see where your grandma was resting,” Leonard said.
“So the building carried with it the ethos of ‘we built this with our own hands, and certainly with our own money, and our previous generations are next door,’” he said.
Among Primitive and Old Regular Baptists in Appalachia, Leonard added, clapboard and wood-frame churches, located deep in the woods, were considered sacred because they were the sight of foot washings, rites of passage and the preaching of the gospel.
“It was about multiple evidences of home,” he said. “It really was about being home.”
‘Where they create memory’
But in modern, urban contexts, those who work with churches say that loyalty to a building or property can blind congregations to creative ways to move forward, whether it’s selling or sharing sacred space.
“They really do believe this is the place where they best encounter God,” said George Bullard, a church strategy consultant with, and president of, the Columbia Partnership in South Carolina.
And no wonder. Christians who have worshiped in the same church all or most of their lives were maybe baptized and married in that place. They may have seen their children and grandchildren baptized and married there. And in some cases, loved ones’ funerals were held in those sanctuaries.
It’s one of the fundamental ways sacred space is created, Bullard said.
“That place becomes more important to them because it’s where they create memory,” he said. “Therefore, their buildings may be in need of major renovation, and they can’t pay for it, but they still want to retain it.”
That’s become an increasingly common dilemma during the past 30 years or so, and is picking up as church memberships age and fewer young families join.
Selling is only one of the options many congregations consider. Another is allowing another congregation to worship in the building, although many are reluctant to explore this option.
Why? “Because they won’t love it the way we do,” Bullard said, adding that the number of churches allowing other groups in is far outnumbered by those who refuse to try it.
“So often we are unwilling to do things that we believe break the sacred nature of our buildings,” he said.
But those who risk such moves, especially opening buildings to others, stand to find even deeper meanings of sacred space, said Julie Pennington-Russell, until May 31 the pastor at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.
“You can have the most beautiful building in America, but if it’s cold and unused, I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of sacred in that,” she said.
But there is nothing cold and unused in a building being used by multiple congregations and other community groups. They are instead warm and vibrant and useful to members and neighbors alike, she said.
That was the situation she encountered when she became pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco in 1983.
At that time it already had a handful of foreign-language congregations, including Japanese and Vietnamese groups.
“They were champions of the whole notion that buildings exist for the good of the world and the good of the city,” Pennington-Russell said.
Not that it was always easy. It was difficult sometimes to find the smell of ethnic foods wafting through church corridors on Sunday mornings.
“There where challenges, mostly with cultural differences,” she said. “I detected no animosity.”
Even so, the number of other congregations using the Nineteenth Avenue facility when she left in 1998 had grown to seven.
At First Baptist in Decatur, that openness has been expressed by opening facilities to some 60 community groups. Those include a number of recovery groups, police officer testing and even the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“If we are going to take up 12 acres in the heart of Decatur, what are we doing if we’re not being useful” to the community?
‘It increases by degrees’
The Church at Clarendon is certainly doing that in Arlington, Va., but in a radical way.
The historic Baptist church underwent massive changes when a 10-story residential tower was built onto the facility to address one of the community’s greatest need — affordable housing. In a partnership with Arlington County and development firm, the church underwent a major renovation which retained the original steeple and pillared facade, while adding eight additional floors of apartments. Of the 116 upscale units, 70 meet the county’s affordble housing designation for low and moderate income households. The work was completed in 2012.
The internal appearance changed, too, but Senior Pastor Jim Johnson said that sacred feeling is returning to Clarendon now that art work and other decorations are slowly going up in different rooms, corridors and in the sanctuary.
“It increases by degrees,” Johnson said.
“The question for the church has been, how are we going to make this ours, put our fingerprints on it, our symbols and crosses and cups and pictures?” he said. “The moving in is still happening here.”
Some of the art being hung in the church is very personal. Including a large map in the church hall where new members places stickers indicating their nations of origin.
“We also personalize our space by our testimony of faith and also by our experiences and our relationships,” he said.