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PBS Special: Endangered Churches as Resources for the Community

PBS recently posted a Religion & Ethics Newsweekly report on closing churches in Philadelphia. Below are selected quotes from the transcript:

SAUL GONZALEZ, correspondent: Philadelphia is a city rich in landmarks, from independence hall, to the Ben Franklin Parkway, to its works of playful public art. The city of brotherly love is also home to an extraordinary variety of imposing and historic houses of worship scattered across its neighborhoods. But many of these grand buildings sit long closed and derelict, with broken windows, locked doors, and for sale signs on them. Other churches, both closed and open, are in simply terrible condition.

Take the 19th Street Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. Built in 1874, it was partly designed by Frank Furness, one of the city’s most celebrated architects. Wilbur Winborne is 19th Street’s pastor.

REVEREND WILBUR WINBOURNE (19th Street Baptist Church): It’s almost like a version of “This Old House” where you look at a house that’s been in a state of deterioration and we need a lot of people and a lot of resources to come and try to help and get this house of worship back on its feet again.

GONZALEZ: Look inside the church, and you can see why the congregation can’t hold services in the main worship space and why the church needs upwards of 3 million dollars in renovation work done.

(to Reverend Winbourne) How did your church get in the shape that it’s in?

WINBOURNE: Well years of neglect. It’s not having the resources that we needed to have. So between neglect, lack of resources and help, this is what we have.

GONZALEZ: And although this church’s condition is extreme, religious leaders and architectural preservationists say too many other historic churches in Philadelphia and other American cities are in similar shape.

BOB JAEGER (Partners for Sacred Places): I think it is fair to say that this is a national crisis. It really is a national crisis.

GONZALEZ: Bob Jaeger is president of the organization Partners for Sacred Places; it’s a Philadelphia-based national non-profit dedicated to protecting America’s historic, and endangered, houses of worship.

GONZALEZ: Bob Jaeger says even people who never step inside a house of worship should recognize the loss to a neighborhood’s sense of community when a church, synagogue or temple closes.

JAEGER: You may love the architecture. You may love the fact that it houses a concert or recital every month. You may love the fact that kids in your community go to day care. You may love the fact that homeless are sheltered there in the wintertime. You may not be a member but you can say this is a place that matters.

GONZALEZ: To save churches on the brink, staffers at Partners for Sacred Places help negotiate deals on behalf of houses of worship so that they can earn extra income by inviting other tenants to share their spaces, renting them out to social service organizations and art groups.

JAEGER: Their buildings can stay alive and they can be cared for and they can be shared in new ways and they can live out their public purpose in new ways. And that’s good for everybody.

Look back at the description of a congregation’s resources, their membership, commitment, financial and physical resources. These congregations highlighted above recognized they have one type of resource — physical space — that they can share with the community. In exchange, they can gain another much-needed resource: money. Moreover, however, these congregations and religious spaces can develop a new and different type of commitment resources and membership resources from the groups who are sharing their space.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org