A lot of you are thinking about the buildings you aren’t worshipping in right now. This pandemic has prompted both nostalgia and hard reassessment. What do we miss? What could we still do? What use is the building anyway? One of the most vivid and poignant accounts I’ve read comes from Angela Tarango, and it’s a reflection on “The Gym” at La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas. She conjures the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of all the events that used to happen there. “The gym is where food is shared. Where celebrations are recorded. Where the dead are mourned.” She says, “Now the gym sits empty. More so than the empty sanctuary, the empty gym haunts me.” So what empty space haunts you?
For all the emptiness and chaos, this is also proving to be a time of creative reassessment. Many religious leaders are discovering the benefits of sharing insights with each other, and a number of organizations and programs are helping to make that possible. At the Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) at USC, the “Reimagining Church Initiative” is gathering leaders to think together about how congregations can thrive amidst the challenges that were here long before the pandemic. Even if you aren’t part of a similar organized program, what new wisdom might you find in your own community (and beyond)?
Sometimes the reimagining that needs to happen involves closing the doors on one community of faith and looking for whatever new life may emerge. Closing a congregation is never easy, and it can take a toll on the leader who has to steer that course. Gail Cafferata came to Boston University several years ago to spend time exploring the experiences of pastors – like herself – who found themselves in that position. Her book, The Last Pastor, tells those stories in all their pain, but also all their wisdom. You can read an interview with her in Faith and Leadership. As she says, “Closing a church does not mean failure.” Are there things your congregation needs to let go?
Finally, a reminder that not all congregating takes place in church or on zoom. There are significant “congregations” happening in the streets. Hebah Farrag (also at USC’s CRCC) writes about the many ways “The Fight for Black Lives is a Spiritual Movement.” She describes the sacred spaces that have been created as places of remembrance and mourning and the rituals that often mark the protest events as more than just protests. Drawing on a deep well of spiritual tradition, people are marking this moment and drawing spiritual strength in community. Where is the spiritual energy in your community?
About the Author: Nancy Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion, Emerita, at Boston University and is Director for this website.