To Re-imagine Religion and Spirit

Volume 51, Issue 3 :: Donna Schaber

Judson Memorial Church, which overlooks Washington Square Park in Manhattan, is at the center of a vibrant community that radiates around it.

‘You have to start by tearing out the pews’

A restored chateau called “Chateau La Coste” in Provence brought me to tears recently. It had a “universal” chapel at its hilltop, renovated by Tadao Ando. It also had works of art by Ai WeiWei, Andy Goldsworthy, and more. It had been bought by an Irishman who wanted to marry the local and the artistic.

The chapel was like so many abandoned chapels on the road to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain: sun-blanched stone, square, small, forgotten. I know my tears came abruptly, because so many American church buildings are about to go the same direction. They are about to be forgotten, with the front door ajar and the weeds breaking up the concrete. Very few have the simple beauty of the chapel at La Coste. But all of them have or at least had that connection between the best architecture a little community could afford and the local.

They put together soaring steeples and baked-bean suppers. They connected the babies to the old people and did “hatching, matching, and dispatching” for as long as anyone wanted. Then their time gave out. Some combination of secularism, multiple options, intermarriage, and conceit put most of our buildings and congregations out of business. Very few will transition to the next decade (PS: I love intermarriage).

The question driving me is what would happen if we did a creative adaptation as forceful as the one at La Coste—as married as the art and the locale are there? There, a Japanese architect encased the building in glass. Yup, he built a glass box around the chapel. It looks a little like a chapel on ice, or a chapel framed. He also put in three benches and three “holes” in the stone so that outdoor light could come up and light the altar. Moreover, he put in a wooden door that doesn’t quite fit the entryway, allowing a sense of the afterlife and heaven to be ever so visible at all times, as you peer out and wonder what’s exactly going on in this cockeyed arrangement. People who would “never darken the door of a church” can safely walk outside and around in the glass enclosure, which is maybe 18 inches wide. The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd doesn’t need to be made uncomfortable by worshipping inside. They can be safely close and also outside of any insults to their religious sincerity. I so love spiritual-but-not-religious people for their refusal to be hypocritical. Some of the conceit that destroyed churches and their buildings came from a strong willingness to be hypocritical.

The chapel at La Coste gives tourists and outdoor museumgoers a spiritual experience. What could our buildings do in their environment to also marry the artistic and the local and the spiritual? Surely we could remove the pews and have multiple uses for our “sanctuaries.”

Outside the chapel at La Coste there is a large red, beaded plastic cross. It reminds one of one of the Paris subway stations. Or a rosary. Or both.

What does the South of France and a Japanese architect have to teach American churches, all but gone and definitely in hospice?

One is that there is a tremendous opportunity hidden in plain sight, to re-imagine religion and spirit. These buildings can all become luxury apartments or groovy restaurants–or they can even more creatively adapt to their circumstance. They can become something different than they were.

Almost for sure, you have to start by tearing out the pews. Those pews have nothing to do with the flexible spirituality people are seeking today. Maybe these buildings are coffee shops or low-income housing or both. Maybe they are workspaces that are stained-glass-lit for people who need free Wi-Fi. Maybe they are daycare centers or eldercare drop in centers. Maybe they are yoga studios, theaters, dance spaces—places for artists that don’t cost a fortune, some of which artists decide to worship with the remnant congregation of a Sunday afternoon or Saturday evening in a truly flexible space. On Wednesday mornings at Judson Memorial Church (where I minister), we sometimes host “Morning Glories,” where 200 people come to dance (sober) and to enjoy the ecstasy of a strong beat. Perhaps on Friday nights joining AA and NA and FA and all the rest of the “downstairs” people, there is a place where people who are using opioids can come to pray and be touched and be held together by something larger than the chemicals that now bind them. And I do mean bind them. Religion comes from the word religare, to bind together.

Before you get on a high horse about people touring religion, or tourist religion, or sidelined religion, or how “awful it is to think of church people being sidelined in their own space,” take a good strong look at what it means to be religious. It may mean precisely to be sidelined—to connect to the people who are there and coming to you and needing you rather than to connect to the people you might like. Our church’s slogan is that we are “the perfect place for imperfect people.” That’s why our growing congregation is dwarfed by the other users of our building, 10-to-one. During a typical week 2,400 walk through our doors while 200 worship together on Sundays. I like that ratio. And from it, our building will creatively adapt.

When a church gets sad and its deferred maintenance starts to show, sometimes it is because it has lost its way. Sometimes it is because it committed the (small) sin of giving more to the community than it could afford. Whatever happened, when the new comes, there is an excitement. When a church is restored—with the elegance and simplicity and light that Judson now again enjoys—a signal of hope permeates the entire community. The building starts to talk: it says we are here to stay. And that is true of Judson. We are here to stay, to remain edgy and alert to the needs and power of the great community that surrounds us, including the fire-eaters right outside our door on Washington Square. We love the energy of the city and want to add our lights to its lights, our fire to its fire. Yes, we need a new elevator. And yes, we need a new roof. And we trust God, the community, and each other to raise the energy that will raise the money to keep us going for a long, long time.

My tears at La Coste were tears of joy, not sorrow.

The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, where she has been for the past 13 years. The author of 38 books on subjects ranging from spirituality to time management, death and dying, and gardening, her most recent is I heart you Francis: Love Letters from an unlikely admirer.