A vestry member at St. John’s shared a personal revelation at a meeting that changed my perspective on our old buildings. She said “I’ve come to realize that the maintenance of our old buildings is not a distraction from our mission, but rather they are our mission.”
No doubt, our 107 year old church sanctuary has its issues – leaky roof, faulty plumbing, ancient electrical systems – the maintenance to-do list seems endless and expensive. Teresa+ and the vestry must feel like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up one side of the mountain only to see it roll down the other side, where they must start all over again.
Recently, though, when St. John’s-Tower Grove was a sanctuary church during the Shaw neighborhood protests, the faith community began to have a new appreciation for the Christian concept of “sanctuary” itself, and how important St. John’s is to our tight, urban neighborhood.
We hold weekly AA and NA meetings here; the La Leché Club gathers in the dining hall once a week; we hold yoga classes, free music lessons for children, serve the Peace Meal, the support group for Mann Elementary School…over a thousand people a month gathers at one time or another in our facilities, people who are not part of our worshipping congregation. We also rent office space to therapists, the executive staff of South Side Prep, Immigrant’s and Women Society services…and I should mention all the activities of a growing faith community itself: Sunday Eucharist, The Travelers meetings, Sunday school, Godly Play, Bible study, the Book Club, weddings, funerals, vigils, retreats…
I wonder what the Tower Grove neighborhood would be like if St. John’s congregation had abandoned its buildings? Personally, I think it would have been like dropping a bomb on Arsenal Street, with the devastation spreading for blocks. St. John’s is a perfect example of a faith community leaving a much bigger footprint in the neighborhood than one would expect from a young faith community of only 200+ people. (It is a young community, when you think about it. Less than ten years ago, it had barely a dozen members; 95% of the members today joined only in the last ten years.)
Where would any of the above activities happen if not in the sanctuary of our church buildings? These programs and activities are mission, and they happen in our biggest of mission tools – our buildings.
There are some terrific faith communities growing in non-traditional settings – in homes, tap rooms, warehouses, rented Masonic lodges, barns. They are great examples of mission, as the church goes to where people live, move, and have their being. We also must realize that many of our traditional worship centers are where our neighbors live, move, and have their being, too. Whether they are located in tight urban neighborhoods like St. John’s, or the suburbs or a tiny rural town, they are in themselves “mission”.
In the Old Testament reading for the Third Sunday in Advent, we read in Isaiah 61 about God’s people: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities…” The mission has not changed much in 2500 years. We are called by God to “build up the ancient ruins.” Let’s pray we can see our mission more clearly with each passing day.