Churches in the historic city find new life as neighborhood centers
MINNEAPOLIS — The pews swayed at Holy Trinity on a recent Sunday as congregants from Minnesota’s Swahili Christian congregation sang and danced beneath the high dark wood ceilings and bustling stained glass windows.
Founded in the 1920s, the magnificent house of worship was once home to one of the largest Lutheran congregations in the country, but now has just 200 regular Sunday worshipers. To stay vibrant, the founding congregation has increasingly opened its historic doors to meet a variety of community needs, from services in Swahili to operating as a makeshift emergency medical center during protests following the killing of George Floyd by the police in 2020.
“Over the past two years, it has become even clearer to me that the Spirit has led us to places we never imagined to go alone,” said Ingrid Rasmussen, senior pastor of Holy Trinity.
Across the United States, historic urban churches built decades ago to accommodate hundreds or thousands of worshipers and bloated Sunday School classes have struggled with dwindling flocks and rising conservation costs. . Many are finding new ways to use their buildings that allow them to keep these sacred places viable while serving the neighborhoods they have anchored for decades.
In Minneapolis, iconic churches have hosted everything from pantries and Finnish lessons to tai chi practices and group discussions about repairs. Elsewhere around the country, they have rented space for events or programs like preschools, generating much-needed revenue, and have also made their buildings available free of charge for gatherings of community groups as diverse as nutrition clinics and artistic workshops.
According to Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, historic religious buildings are not just civic and cultural landmarks, but crucial social centers, with non-congregants making up about 90% of the people they serve. The nonprofit helps religious institutions around the country plan and fundraise to reallocate their spaces to another era, and Jaeger sees plenty of room to do more in this area.
“Congregations have enormous civic value but are often underutilized,” he said.
Polls show that the United States continues to grow, with total membership and followers declining. Fewer souls on the pews mean less money to pay for staff, maintenance and programs, forcing many small congregations to sell their buildings.
The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these problems by further reducing attendance. It also increased the need for food, housing, employment, and educational ministries among the faithful and society at large.
This is particularly relevant for low-income and minority neighborhoods where informal faith-based networks are often more trusted than government authorities.
The century-old Church of the Incarnation, a predominantly Spanish-speaking Catholic parish in Minneapolis, has renovated its garage to house a kind of community convenience store where the 1,600 households that depend on the church for food can get free food products. groceries and other vital goods. On a freezing Sunday, a steady stream of families came for donated coats and sweaters, as well as 10 books. sacks of chicken that remained frozen despite sitting in the sun for hours near the steps outside the shrine.
Incarnation remodeled the basement and used it to host COVID-19 vaccination clinics that drew “tons” of people, according to Victor Guillen, a three-decade church member who oversees maintenance and volunteered for the renovation.
“People come here because we’re a center for the Latino community,” Guillen said.
As with other churches, launching such service programs has had the benefit of increasing volunteerism and attracting more donations, enabling Incarnation to undertake a million dollar roof restoration that is almost finished.
Religious buildings with excess space also provide cash-strapped community groups with a place to hold their own gatherings, which is especially important in cities where property values and rents are high.
The neighborhood church in Atlanta’s leafy Candler Park neighborhood was born in the mid-2010s from the merger of two United Methodist congregations. Proceeds from the sale of the church’s largest building were used to fund the renovation of the smaller, a 1930s structure redesigned to minimize Christian imagery to better serve the diverse neighborhood, the co-pastors said Andy and Anjie Woodworth.
Today, it hosts not just the congregation, but two polling places and, pandemic permitting, the activities of more than a dozen groups who share the church’s inclusive values, from scout troops to advocates. rights of transgender people of color.
“We are creating a welcoming space,” said Andy Woodworth. “Opening the church like this puts us in touch with a lot more people.”
The small, aging congregation at the Coppin Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church on the South Side of Chicago is another that has become increasingly community-minded. Membership has shrunk to about a tenth of what it was in the 1960s, so Coppin struggles to afford the necessary upkeep of the nearly century-old building and its artwork, including two murals in the sanctuary.
Through the Coppin Community Center, which offers food and family programs at its adjacent youth center, the congregation has been able to attract grants and grow its ministry of service, said Frankye Parham, who directs Coppin’s Christian Education. and its community center.
The church is working on developing a new teen ministry at the request of neighborhood youth who sought Coppin as a “safe haven” from violence and other social ills.
“Traditional ways don’t work today. We have to talk about different things that the community deals with,” said Robert Parham, husband of Frankye, who first dated Coppin more than 50 years ago. years old and is now a director.
Similar challenges faced the congregation of Christ Church Lutheran, a mid-20th-century National Historic Landmark designed by famed architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen: Membership numbers dropped so low that everyone began to ask if we could keep the doors open,” Mary Bode said. , a member for three decades and a volunteer at the Minneapolis church.
With help from Partners for Sacred Places, the church created a preservation committee to save its pale brick and blonde-wood building, nestled in a tree-lined neighborhood of single-story homes. It has since branched out into different community uses and connected education building, ranging from Montessori preschool classrooms to basketball leagues.
Like others in the city, Christ Church Lutheran has sought to foster healing in the wake of Floyd’s murder. In May 2021, on the anniversary of his death, community members gathered in his modernist open courtyard where Miriam Samuelson-Roberts, the senior pastor, had left a laminated guide for reflection and prayer. .
“People came and sat down who might never have entered the church,” she said. “It is essential that neighbors have a space to meet.”
In some cities, the use of religious buildings for non-religious purposes, such as homeless shelters, has clashed with zoning rules and caused conflict with municipal authorities. But faith leaders have often succeeded in making the case that these ministries are essential to their mission and to their community.
“Every religion has laws that require you to do this,” said Randi Roth, executive director of Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, Minnesota, where the group worked with the city planner on zoning code amendments. “But for all, it brings to life the words they read in prayer.”
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