From largest Midwest Methodist church to ruins to possible public garden

A prominent Methodist church in Gary, Indiana may not look promising now – no roof for the sanctuary, graffiti – but it could have a future as a unique public space:

Mario Longoni, an urban research manager for the Field Museum, took part in a workshop March 22 coordinated by the Gary Redevelopment Commission to get public suggestions on what should become of the building, which opened Oct. 3, 1926, and at its peak in 1952 was the largest Methodist congregation in the Midwestern U.S. with 3,185 parishioners, officials said.

It closed as a church on Oct. 5, 1975, with a congregation that had shrunk to 320 people.

A 1997 fire and vandals throughout the years have left the building in ruins. Yet Longoni suggested other industrial sites around the world that have been converted into public places, including one in Berlin where he said that redevelopers set aside a wall where graffiti is encouraged…

City officials have suggested the building could become an urban ruins garden, based off of the heavy layers of ivy that cover the outer walls during the summer months…

“It went from being the largest Methodist church in the Midwest to closing its doors within two decades,” he said. “It’s tied in with deindustrialization, urban decay and white flight, it’s the story of urban America.”

There are many churches in the United States, particularly those in Mainline denominations that have lost millions of members in recent decades, that could be utilized for similar functions. If religious congregations disappear or religious groups can no longer maintain the building (such as with some Catholic churches in Chicago), what will become of these structures that were once vibrant? One option is to let them be used for private development, particularly residences. See earlier posts here and here. But, this does not work as well in poorer neighborhoods where there is little demand for property.

Using an older church for public space could fulfill two important purposes. First, it can become a place for the community to gather. Well-maintained public spaces are in short supply in many communities. Of course, this requires money and/or effort from the municipality and neighbors. But, a more vibrant street life and community is a good payoff for putting some resources into a building that already exists. Second, while the church building would become a public space, it can help acknowledge the presence of the religious group in the neighborhood. Many older churches have a particular architecture that is hard to mistake with a commercial or civic structure. The church lives on in a way if the building is repurposed and can provide less-obvious spiritual meaning for future generations. Perhaps the ongoing presence and influence of the church building can be part of the larger cultural victory of mainline Protestants (an argument made by sociologist Jay Demerath) even if the congregation is no longer there.

The end of global evangelists?

The passing of Billy Graham led me to ponder whether another religious leader can rise to a similar stature in today’s world. On one hand, the world is more connected than ever. When Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on Twitter, it is not hard to follow religious leaders or to find their words and actions in news sources. An increasingly connected world means that any leader, religious or otherwise, could quickly connect with billions around the globe.

Yet, it strikes me that there were certain conditions in play that helped contribute to the rise of Billy Graham. These would be difficult to duplicate:

  1. The end of World War II and the prosperity of the United States. As an American, Graham emerged from the country that helped end World War II and became the global democratic superpower. Graham could push against communism and project American strength and cool.
  2. The rise of the United States was accompanied by a religious resurgence in the US. As Finke and Stark argue in The Churching of America, church attendance rose through the 1950s before leveling off in the 1960s.
  3. A rising middle-class individualism in the United States that Graham could appeal to. While he often addressed social issues, the path to solving these problems started with changing individual hearts. This individualistic appeal – not new in American religion – now had a broad audience.
  4. A particular evangelistic and global missionary zeal in the United States where fundamentalists and evangelicals had both the resources and energy to try to spread the Gospel. This has cooled off to some degree.
  5. The emergence of evangelicals as a category from the dust heap of fundamentalism which had been pushed to the sidelines of American society in the early 1900s.
  6. The rise of mass media, particularly television, and the regular access billions had to it. Graham was telegenic enough. Yet, this mass media was not the same as today: it had a limited number of outlets so the audience was not as fragmented as later on.

This is not to say that religion is an inert force in today’s world or that new religious leaders could not emerge. Yet, they will do so in different conditions than that experienced by Graham and several generations of world citizens.

Jesus had a favorite suburb

The forward written by pastor Leith Anderson in The Suburban Church: Practical Advice for Authentic Ministry starts this way:

Bethany was Jesus’ favorite suburb. He often commuted the 1.8 miles into the city of Jerusalem where much of his ministry took place. Bethany was home to three of his best friends – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus ate there, slept there, and performed his top miracle in Bethany when he brought Lazarus out of the grave alive. (ix)

This is possibly both incredibly anachronistic – cities outside of Jerusalem in the first century AD did not look like or function like the American suburbs of today – and clever – trying to connect Biblical themes to the places where many American Christians now live. Is this the sort of claim only evangelicals would make?

Five decades later, white evangelicals commonly invoking MLK

In recent years, I think I noticed something within white evangelical circles: a regular use of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. I do not know if this is a certifiable trend or not; it simply popped into my mind after a few recent experiences.

On one hand, this could be viewed as a positive sign. White evangelicals are turning around to addressing issues of race and justice. They recognize the importance of the work of MLK. They are willing to learn from others outside of their theological tradition.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is all five decades too late. Are the evangelicals of today the same “white moderates” King criticizes in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“? Is King now acceptable for use because his words and ideas are a normal part of American society? Are those invoking King today willing to go to the same lengths as King and other Christians to fight injustice?

May this Martin Luther King Day help lead to true justice.

 

Converting an architecturally-noted Chicago synagogue into apartments

The conversion of religious buildings into residential units is interesting to me (see earlier posts here and here). Here is another example from Chicago: an Uptown synagogue that was on preservation lists will be turned into apartments.

Originally built by architect Henry Dubin of the firm Dubin and Eisenberg in 1922, the former religious structure at 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue features a dramatic stained glass-lined sanctuary plus attached offices, classrooms, a commercial kitchen, and various multi-purpose rooms.

After closing its doors to the public in 2008, the building faced an uncertain future. Despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, water damage, vandalism, and deferred maintenance left much of the structure in poor condition. In 2015, the synagogue earned a spot on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecturally significant buildings.

Chicago-based developer and adaptive reuse specialist Cedar Street Companies acquired the property last year for $1.25 million…

Branded as simply ‘The Synagogue,’ Cedar Street’s residential conversion is slated to include eight studio apartments, 32 one-bedroom apartments, and a 21-car parking lot.

Saying that you live at “The Synagogue” has a certain ring to it.

It would be interesting to think about if reactions of different kinds of religious buildings differ depending on the religious tradition. Certain religious groups have different conceptions of religious buildings. In other words, some see the religious space as more sacred or fundamental to their practices than others. For example, the academic literature on the white flight of religious groups in the post-World War II era suggests that different groups found it easier or harder to leave their structures. At the same time, I’m guessing that a good number of these reconversions of religious buildings happen a while after the building was used by its primary congregation.

Owner wants his shopping mall to be a community space and have a giant monument to The Ten Commandments

Shopping malls are interesting spaces as they are devoted to consumption and yet often operate like public spaces (though they are not). One Texas mall owner has some interesting ideas for his renovated mall near Dallas:

Odessa businessman John Bushman wants to turn the mall into a community space where people can find some “peace and love” in the Ten Commandments, hear some local musicians perform live and take in a giant wave of a 30-foot-by-60-foot American flag outside.

All of Bushman’s other businesses — hotels in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, other shopping centers and a Chickn4U restaurant in Odessa — display the Ten Commandments engraved on 800-lb stone tablets. In Dallas, he owns the MCM Elegante Hotel and Suites on W. Northwest Highway…

He wants Vista Ridge to be a “wholesome family place” and he said, this time of year that includes Santa who will arrive at the mall on Saturday with free family photos to the first 100 customers. The mall has new Christmas decorations…

Bushman agreed it’s unusual for a mall to display religious messages. But he thinks it will work in the big city as well as it does in West Texas.

Only in Texas? Only in America? Perhaps it is fitting to mix essential tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition with America’s other great love: shopping.

More seriously though, shopping malls are going to extra efforts these days to bring in visitors and shoppers. This is one way to go: provide family-friendly entertainment and regularly host community groups and events. The second option is mentioned later in the article by a local detractor (who seems to think this strategy is not one befitting of a nicer suburban area): go for upscale stores and trendy restaurants to create a vibrant and glamorous scene.

If shoppers had the opportunity to go to a mall like this with giant Ten Commandments versus shopping elsewhere, how many will go out of their way (in practice and not just intentions) to go to the mall with the religious objects? How much will this boost sales?

Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.