Thursday, July 22, 2010

Moving Church

Last night I called a church friend to see what I missed at Sunday's meeting. She said it was mostly an opportunity for people to express their feelings. I'm glad I didn't go; at this point I need information, not more grief.

There's no official word yet on when we'll close, but it will probably be sometime within the next six months. After the meeting, she told me, some people were saying that the last parish service should be Christmas Eve.

The two of us don't like that idea, which -- for me, anyway -- raises queasy images of stillbirth. Instead, we agreed, it would make more sense to stay through the end of the church year and then begin Advent in a new place.

The question is where to go. Even before the closure news, our parish had planned a series of visits to other parishes. The first of those is this Sunday, so we'll get a taste of what a new home might be like.

The parish that appeals to me most, at least at the moment, has been in financial trouble too. I like the idea of combining with them, although their building is much less pleasant than ours. But my friend shared an interesting bit of information with me. Evidently, although this is far from official, there's some talk of the two parishes combining but then, in five years or so, selling the other building also, and using the proceeds from both sales to build a new church in Spanish Springs, a bustling and prosperous suburb of Reno-Sparks.

This would be a haul: fourteen miles along congested roads, versus the five-minute, two-mile drive I have now. But then, anywhere would be farther away than my current parish. What really bothers me about this idea (which may come to nothing, after all) is the politics involved.

One of the reasons our parish hasn't done well is that we're in a "bad neighborhood." The street looks quiet and calm to me, but according to the police, it's a hotbed of gang activity, a place where people don't like to come out at night. I asked my friend if the other parish is considering relocating for the same reason, and she said yes. They're also considered difficult to find -- although I never had any trouble locating them -- and have limited parking.

Okay, so we have to go where there are people who'll be interested in attending. I get that. But I also have to agree with Gary's assessment when I told him about the rumor: "Ah. The church is moving into a gated community."

There's an obvious Catch-22 here. Most people want to attend "nice" churches in "nice neighborhoods," but the "bad" neighborhoods are precisely the ones most in need of church and what, at its best, it can offer. I'm reminded of a passage from Tom Driver's powerful book Liberating Rites, about the transformative -- indeed, revolutionary -- potential of the Eucharist. Setting forth a template for a politically radical service, Driver says, "Before the last have departed, the remaining food should be taken into the street and given away. If there are no hungry people in the vicinity of the church, the church should be moved" (222).

I love that quotation. I've used it in homilies. Other people have loved it, too. But now some of us are evidently thinking about moving the church away from hungry people, rather than toward them (although, to be fair, there are plenty of hungry folk in areas near Spanish Springs, too).

It's an old conflict. Our parish has a lovely parcel of land that's lain unused as long as I've been there. Before I arrived, a committee worked on a proposal to rent the space to a Montessori school, at a tidy profit to the parish. A significant minority of the congregation spoke out against the idea, because they didn't think offering a place where affluent parents paid hefty kindergarten tuitions was what church was supposed to be about.

That rumpus resulted in a stalemate broken only by the most recent proposal, one everyone liked, for a freestanding residential hospice to go on the land. Now that we won't be there, I wonder where they'll go.

It's very early days yet, and anything could happen. But I suspect the tension between the nice and the needy will outlast all of us.


  1. The Church is not a building. The building is just a place where the Church can gather for common worship. As you depart through the doors of whatever building you worshipped in, you take the Church with you out into the world.
    You know that Susan. You can do outreach in any neighbourhood, state, country, continent or planet that you choose. Take the church TO the needy and let the well to do inhabitants of Reno-Sparks pay the way. And don't forget, they may not be poor in pocket book but they may be poor in spirit over there in Reno-Sparks and they may really need you there.

  2. All the churches in that area were having problems. It's too bad you can't merge with Faith Lutheran, but I think Faith has had its own problems, too.

  3. The struggles of churches in poorer communities is what led Cardinal Mahony to establish the Together in Mission campaign. Essentially, it asks the richer churches within the Archdiocese donor churches to the poorer ones.

    Regardless of where you end up, I am sure that the Church you bring with you will benefit the church you attend.


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