By Rev. Kirk Berlenbach, Canon for Growth and Support for The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ — Ezekiel 37:1
If you drive around Philadelphia for more than ten minutes, chances are you will come across a closed church. Although they are sad to see, such shuttered or crumbling edifices are now so commonplace that many of us hardly notice. If they enter our consciousness at all, it is only in terms of how such derelict building will impact our property value or if some developer is going to try and squeeze in as many condos as possible and make parking even more of a nightmare.
But what if we started to think about church buildings differently? What if instead of the burden or inconvenience they might cause, we focused instead on their potential to make our community a better place? What if we dared to ask, “Can these bones live?”
There are success stories in which churches have been converted into housing, offices, medical facilities or even breweries. But all too often they demolished. One such church, formerly known as L’Emmanuello, was once pastored by my great grandfather as an Episcopal mission to the Italian community in South Philadelphia. It disappeared earlier this year to make way for new development and its legacy of faith, life and service, are now all but forgotten.
As I consider all the closed churches in and around Philadelphia, I have come to one clear realization; while it is good to see empty church buildings as potential assets and to meaningfully repurpose them whenever possible, we would do well to consider their full potential before they close.
This is no simple task. As congregations shrink and age, their buildings tend to become burdens. The Sunday School wings that once housed hundreds lie empty. Industrial kitchens that cooked for thousands are used a couple times a year at best. Deferred maintence issues grow while the financial and human resources needed to stay on top of them only dwindle.
Looking Outward, Breathing New Life into Sacred Places
So what can congregations do to breathe new life into their historic buildings? The answer lies in their willingness to open their doors and shift their focus from themselves to the community outside. If they do they will find the need for preschools, healthy food, shelter, the arts, exercise, advocacy and support. They will find people longing to be accepted and loved. The life and vitality that churches so sorely miss is all around us, if we could just open our minds, our hearts and our doors and let them come in. What were once-empty buildings will fill with life and the host congregation will rediscover new sources of purpose, partnership and even income.
As Canon for Growth and Support, I am blessed to be called to a ministry in which I get to assist Episcopal congregations in such transformative work every day and I am proud of the churches that are already living into this sacred work. St. Mark’s in Frankford has a massive sanctuary that could easily seat 800. But even as the congregation shrank in size, they transformed themselves into a center of service offering food, clothing, shelter and support to community ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Now the building brims with life as it offers hope to thousands.
The Church of the Advocate has a massive campus that would dwarf the size of its small but growing congregation. Yet it serves hot food to hundreds each week, offers education and advocacy and most recently became a sanctuary for an undocumented family. In contrast, St. Simon the Cyrenian has a small footprint and an even smaller pool of leadership. But for the past several years it has been transforming its parish hall into a place in which the hungry are fed and in the summer hosts camp for neighborhood kids. They are presently working on renovations that would allow them to host a preschool.
These congregations, and many more like them, struggled with dwindling resources and mounting maintence. Yet rather than giving into despair, they chose to look outward. What they saw were communities in need. While they didn’t have much in terms of money or labor, they did have their buildings. And so, they opened their doors to let in the homeless and the hungry and found that the Spirit of God came in too.
Naturally, not everyone who comes into the church for a cooking class or theatre rehearsal or a 12 step meeting is going to make their way to the pews on Sunday. But that’s OK. For so long as they are welcomed in the name of Jesus Christ, that church still lives into its mission. When congregations stop focusing on themselves and begin to consider the needs of their community, those same buildings that were once the source of anxiety and sadness are transformed into incredible assets for ministry.
Philadelphia is a city filled with churches. While it may be too late to save them all, for many others the answer to their prayers stands all around them. God is waiting to breathe new life into them. All they have to do is open their doors.
This column is part of an ongoing series sharing the progress of our Sacred Places/Civic Spaces Design Challenge. The final designs will be presented on December 4, 2018. Join us for the Sacred Places/Civic Spaces Public Reveal!