Reflections on Richmond and Madison, Sabbatical Update 2

The first stop on my sabbatical was Richmond, VA. I chose it because I had to be in Richmond for a conference from October 24-31. and because I was interested in learning more about the ministry and vision of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church which, like my own church, is located opposite the State Capitol. I had visited Richmond around 25 years ago and as I’ve pointed out to several people here, both Richmond and I have changed a great deal over that period of time.

In a second post, I will focus more narrowly on my experience and conversations at St.Paul’s. Here, I’d like to offer some first impressions as I walked the city. The second will focus on how Richmond and St. Paul’s are addressing the history of slavery, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause. The third will look specifically in St. Paul’s ministry in the city.

It’s interesting to compare Madison, WI and Richmond, VA. They are both state capitals and they have roughly the same population (Madison is around 240,000; Richmond roughly 220,000) but the comparisons end there. Richmond’s metro area is roughly twice the size of Madison’s (1.2 million to 600000) and the city of Richmond has a majority minority population with African-Americans making up around 51% of the population (compared to Madison’s 7.3%0.

Walking around Richmond, I was struck by the deep divisions and boundaries that fragment the city. There are important geographical ones like the James River. More important perhaps are the man-made ones, especially the railroads and interstates that divide the city now and once destroyed neighborhoods and communities. The downtown is dominated by the state capitol, other state office buildings and highrise office buildings that most often serve as headquarters for banks and other service industries. Richmond is a commuter city, more than 100,000 people come into the downtown to work from Monday to Friday and when they leave, the downtown shuts down except for a few pockets of restaurants and entertainment. As I walked the half-mile from my hotel to church services on a beautiful Sunday morning, I encountered no more than a half-dozen people on the sidewalks.

Just west of downtown is Virginia Commonwealth University which is making inroads east into the traditionally African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward. It’s remarkable that one side of Broad St has a number of high-end galleries, boutiques, and hotels and VCU has undertaken major construction on two blocks. On the opposite side of Broad Street `(apparently the southern border of the Jackson Ward) are boarded up storefronts, hookah parlors and pawn shops.

I ate at Mama J’s (soul food) on N. First St. I had the best fried catfish I’ve ever tasted, macaroni and cheese that was as good as my own, and a divine slice of hummingbird cake. I ate at the bar. To my left was a white guy in his thirties, like me, reading from an apple device. To my right sat several African-American men. The clientele was mixed although most of the take out orders were picked up by were well-dressed African Americans who seemed to be picking up large orders of food for parties or dinners at home.

After leaving Mama J’s and walking back to Broad Street, I noticed a barbershop on the corner. It was packed. There were probably 6 or 8 chairs all of them full; and patrons filled all of seating spaces in the waiting area; others were standing around, and even the sidewalk had groups of men standing around and talking. Some old neighborhood institutions seem to be surviving and even thriving.

In reading about Richmond, it’s clear that there’s considerable discussion in the city around gentrification. There are signs of it on the north side of Broad St; but even more in the areas of Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill. What is most striking to me is the sheer amount of real estate that is underused and seems derelict. One wonders what cultural and economic change would be necessary for all of those buildings and vacant land to be occupied and utilized. Richmond saw a significant decline in population, largely driven by white flight from 1970-2000. In 1970, its population was almost 250000; by 2000 it had fallen to 197,000.

I’d be fascinated to hear from urban planners about what sort of a future they envision for Richmond. Clearly, if they were able to attract more residents to the city, they might be able to revitalize more of the housing and commercial stock. But to attract more downtown residents would require enormous investment in institutions like the schools and transportation. In our current political climate, would that even be possible? The Library of Virginia has an online exhibition called “Mapping Inequality” that uses maps to show the changing demographic patterns in Richmond over the last two centuries.

Movement on the homeless shelter?

The long-awaited and overdue feasibility study commissioned by the City of Madison has finally been completed. Architects are proposing several alternatives for using a city-owned property on S. Fairchild St. for a permanent men’s homeless shelter. You can read about their ideas here.

We’ve been waiting for this report for months and its completion is another step in what might be an exciting and very different future both for homeless men in Madison and for Grace Church. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984 on a one-year trial basis and we’ve hosted ever since. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to find alternative locations and better solutions, but nothing ever came of them.

A recent series of articles in the Madison State Journal have provided a comprehensive and troubling overview of Madison’s homeless problems and the inadequacies of our shelter system. Those articles are available here.

This is truly a wonderful opportunity but there are significant challenges still to come. The neighborhood meeting on Monday night will be an opportunity to hear about the possibilities and to provide feedback to the architects, city staff, and elected leaders. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be financial. While the city is willing to provide the property, there are no public funds available for renovation of the space. At this point, we don’t have any idea of what those costs might be, and whether the private sector can produce the funds necessary.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future. We have found a location that could work which is an important step forward and in conversations and meetings I’ve been with other stakeholders, there seems to be a great deal of excitement about the possibility of a new shelter designed for our current needs.

But that leaves a final question. What does all this mean for Grace Church. We have hosted the shelter for over thirty years, and over that time, ministry to and with the homeless has become part of our identity. We have created enormous good will throughout the community because of the shelter’s presence here, and when there is negative publicity, we suffer as well.

If and when the shelter moves, the effects of that move on Grace will be significant. We will have to think about how we might continue to engage in ministry with the homeless; how we might continue to support the work of the shelter and its current operator Porchlight. Beyond that, Grace will have to discern anew what the best uses of our space might be and how best we might share Christ’s love with our neighbors. Those conversations will be exciting as well and I look forward to them.


When wiping the dust from our feet isn’t enough: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year C, 2016


I’ve begun to prepare for my sabbatical later this fall when I will explore how urban churches are doing innovative ministry and mission in our changing 21st century context, As part of that preparation, I’m thinking and reading about cities. While reading urban theorists and historians of the city, I’ve realized I was operating with certain assumptions about the nature, purpose, and history of urban environments, and that those assumptions helped to shape my approach to ministry and mission here at Grace. Continue reading

Racism, the university, and the “progressive” city.

Sis Robinson, Associate Professor at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has written an essay about her research on five “hyper-liberal” cities: Madison, Evanston, IL, Cambridge, Chapel Hill, and Ann Arbor. Her conclusions:

My research shows that one reason is white people’s separation from the lives of people of color.  White professionals in these cities can go entire days without seeing any black or brown people. As a result, they don’t see or hear overt racism in their own daily lives, and it becomes easy to believe that it isn’t actually happening anywhere.

Also, many of us white, liberal-minded people consider ourselves “post-racial,” and accept no responsibility for racism in our community.  We understand racial disparity as a systemic issue, but feel powerless to do anything about it.

Indeed, we have also staked our identities on the belief that we live in communities that are open and fair to all. The idea that we need to change the very systems we have been invested in nurturing threatens our very sense of self.

I look forward to reading her book: Networked Voices: Race, Journalism, and Progressive Voices.

A Day overflowing with Latinos

It may have been hashtagged as #DiaSinLatinosEnWisconsin (#daywithoutLatinos) but for Grace, it was a day when we were overflowing with Latinos. And once again, I was caught off-guard. I pay relatively little attention to local media outlets and the past couple of days had been so busy for me that I neglected my twitter feed and facebook as well. In face, it was only thanks to a facebook post from a local candidate that I realized there was actually a contested election in the primary that was held on Tuesday. So I had vaguely heard about the rally that was scheduled for today, but preparing a response was not on my to-do list for this morning (Executive Committee meeting at 8:15, followed by a session with our new treasurer). I hoped to be able to get some work done on my sermon, deal with some emails, typical sort of day in ministry. Continue reading

Moving the men’s drop-in shelter from Grace

An article by Pat Schneider provides some background on the potential move. It is an exciting prospect for the future of homeless services in Madison, and for Grace Church, too. If the shelter moves, we will engage the community and our congregation in a conversation about our future ministry and mission in a spot where we have been worshiping and serving God for over 150 years. At the same time, we will continue to advocate for “the least of these.”