Whited sepulchers or living stones: Sabbatical update

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it. Whenever I open Grace’s doors during the week or on Saturdays and people wander in, someone will say, “I’ve walked past this church for years and have never been inside.”

Such statements don’t surprise me anymore. Most Madison residents who walk the sidewalks of Capitol Square are on their way somewhere, to work, to a restaurant or concert, to the Farmer’s Market or a demonstration, or back home. When we walk like that, with a destination in mind, we rarely take time to notice our surroundings. Our attention is diverted from our journey’s goal or our iphone screen only if something in our peripheral vision distracts us, something new or different, a door that’s opened, beckoning us into unfamiliar space, when every other time we’ve passed by, its been closed.

Even so, if the door is open and we notice it, will we take the opportunity to walk in, to encounter the space hidden behind those heavy, wooden doors? Likely not, after all, we’re not just out for a stroll. We’re on our somewhere, to work or home, to the Farmer’s Market, or returning from the market, carrying heavy bags full of vegetables. We don’t have time or the inclination. We might even think that the invitation of an open door is not meant for me.

I was walking down 14th St. in Washington, DC, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather on a November day, awash in the various sights and sounds of an unfamiliar city. As I walked, I passed by several Protestant churches in various states of repair—United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist. They were all imposing edifices, reminders of a time when mainline Christianity was at the center of American culture. All of them showed in their fabric the transformation of America and of Christianity in the decades since they were built. There was evidence of the crisis of homelessness in urban America, both in the services that these churches were providing and in measures the churches took to restrict homeless people from sections of the property where they were unwelcome.

Most, if not all of the churches announced somewhere in some similar language: “God welcomes all” or “All are welcome.” One of those signs hung on the side of a church behind a high iron fence with padlocked gates. On weekdays, except for the homeless congregating around them, all of these churches looked forbidding and foreboding. Just as commuters and tourists passed by quickly without a glance, these churches were further evidence that American culture had passed them by without a backward glance.

The same was true in other cities I visited—Richmond, New York City, Boston. Boston (or Cambridge) fascinated me in that respect. It’s a city I once knew well, having lived there from 1982 to 1991 and having walked the streets of Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston countless times and for hours on end. I remembered many of the churches I walked past this week, in Harvard Square, down Mass Ave to Porter Square. It occurred to me that I could have made the same exclamation had I entered any of them this week. I remembered walking past them but had never entered any of them. The number of churches I actually had visited in my decade or more in Boston was relatively small, the number I had worshiped in was even smaller.

What I did remember was the response I had in the 80s while walking past many of these churches. It was the same response I had in 2016 while walking past churches on 14th St. in Washington. I assumed the condition of the exterior was evidence of the vitality and vibrancy of the congregation that worshiped there. Certainly, disrepair is clear evidence of the financial resources available. I know all too well how expensive maintenance and upkeep of large, historic buildings can be, how demanding of congregational time and energy, as well as money.

Often, we look at such buildings with sadness and regret, mourning the passing of an era when the buildings were full of life and built to provide space and programming for large and growing congregations. We assume that the buildings were created of that magnitude in order to accommodate present congregations and anticipated future growth.

That’s not always the case. When I was studying for my M.Div at Harvard Divinity School in the mid 1980s, I did my Field Education at a mainline Protestant Church in Boston’s Back Bay. The building was on the National Historical Register. Its architect was H.H Richardson (no, it wasn’t Trinity Church, Copley Square); the friezes on its tower created by Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. It was proud of its Tiffany windows, its long history, its architectural pedigree. When I was there, Sunday attendance averaged in the 40s and it was easy to imagine Sundays decades before when the sanctuary seating around 800 was packed full.

In fact, its history was very different. In fact, the building was built by an already established Unitarian congregation that wanted to relocate in the newly developed and very fashionable Back Bay after the Civil War. But the design and construction were far beyond the congregation’s financial resources and it went bankrupt during construction. Completed in 1872, the architectural landmark stood empty and unused for a decade, until a Protestant congregation purchased it and moved in. In subsequent decades, other congregations from that denomination merged into this congregation as demographic patterns shifted. Certainly, it had thrived over the decades but it had never fully occupied the space it had purchased in 1882.

Likely similar stories could be told of mainline congregations across the country, large, beautiful buildings constructed in a time of optimism and growth, built to attract people moving into nearby neighborhoods. Boston’s Back Bay is a prime example of this. Within a few blocks are two Episcopal churches in addition to Unitarian, UCC, Presbyterian, and American Baptist. In a few blocks, the status, wealth, and marketing efforts of 19th century mainline Christianity is on full display.

Whether such buildings and the congregations that inhabit them will survive is an open question. But it’s also important to recognize that buildings in relative states of disrepair do not necessarily tell the whole story or reflect the vitality of the congregation that worships there. I was reminded of this when I visited St. James Episcopal Church in Porter Square, Cambridge. It was one of those churches I was thinking about earlier when I wrote about passing them by. I leaved near Porter Square for most of the time I was in Boston. For about a year, my commute took me more or less directly past St. James. I never entered it or worshiped there. That same year, one of my roommates did attend regularly. He loved the worship and the warm community. St. James has considerable architectural interest. From the outside it seems to be in considerable disrepair. Certainly, its parish house is rundown, and it is surrounded by an overgrown and unwelcoming garden.

In contrast to the uninviting aspects of its buildings and garden, St. James also shows signs of vitality to the community. A permanent Black Lives Matter sign stands as witness on the Massachusetts Ave side of the property and near the main entrance to the church. Around the side and back of the property construction is underway. After talks that began in 2007, construction has begun on a condominium development in which St. James is a partner. In additional to market-rate and some affordable units, St. James will have a new parish hall and a significant start on an endowment for ongoing building maintenance. . A newly configured garden will welcome passersby into space that is inviting and offers respite from the busy streets of the neighborhood.

I have no doubt that when I walk past St. James five years from now, I will see a building and property that are welcoming and inviting to passers-by; that the vitality of the congregation will be on full display seven days a week and that its property will be a spiritual haven in the midst of a busy city.

Sabbatical as Liturgical Tourism

In my last sermon before departing on sabbatical, I mentioned to the congregation that the six Sundays I would be away from Grace would constitute the longest break from presiding at the Eucharist since my ordination in 2006. Indeed, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of Sundays since my ordination on which I had attended church services in which I was not participating in some leadership capacity. 

But it’s not just been Sunday mornings. During my sabbatical, I have been something of a liturgical tourist. I’ve worshiped in a number of different cities and settings, experienced different worship styles and worshiping communities within the same congregation. This week, I have been immersed in the prayer and worship of the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

I have enjoyed the variety of worship styles and the diverse worshiping communities. There was the familiar—the Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, the Daily Office, hymns from the Hymnal 1982. There was the new and different—services based on the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, from the Community of Iona, new and powerful hymn texts. There were also memories from my past—the first time I’ve sung “How Great Thou Art” in many, many years. And there was the surprising—baptisms in which the presider sat babies down in the font to baptize them and then raised them above his head in exuberant celebration.

In a way, all of it was strange. To sit in a pew, to open a service bulletin wondering what I might find, to look around the congregation and see only unfamiliar faces; to pay attention to the new space in which I found myself; to ask, “what were the architects and people thinking, why did they choose this style and how has this style, this space, shaped the congregation? How has the changing historical context, the changing neighborhood, the changing congregation, adapted and transformed this space for their spiritual needs?”

For “Street Church” with its lack of defined space, other questions. With no boundaries defining the space, and little demarcation between Eucharist and lunch, how does that openness invite participation, welcome the marginal, the unknown, the stranger?

It’s been a great gift to worship in so many contexts with so many people. To let go, to not worry about what was going to happen next or whether everyone who was scheduled would be there, whether the details were in place; to sit, and stand, sing, and pray, to receive bread and wine as a stranger, surrounded by strangers, and yet, in spite of it, to be welcomed at the table and with these strangers, as we eat Christ’s body and blood, we are, we become the Body of Christ.

As the weeks have passed and as the number and variety of my worship experiences has increased, I’ve deepened my appreciation for the flexibility and power of Episcopal worship. To worship in all those different contexts with thousands of people coming from very different places and living very different lives, is to experience one of the great strengths of the Episcopal Church. Our worship brings us into the presence of God and brings us into relationship with Jesus Christ. In worship, we experience the love of Christ and become the Body of Christ. The miracle is that this happens whenever, wherever we worship. The wonder is that all of those people who worship among and with us, can experience all of that, come to experience all of that. It can happen with beautiful music sung by professional choirs; it can happen when a few people sing “Amazing Grace” haltingly and off-key in a Washington Park. It can happen in glorious vestments and beautiful churches. But we can also experience God’s presence, the love of Christ, and become the Body of Christ in a warm smile or a hand tenderly placed on the shoulder of a sobbing woman at the altar rail.

Grace at Epiphany

The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany is located on G St. between 13th and 14th NW. My interest in Epiphany’s work was piqued by several of their programs. On Sunday mornings they have something called The Welcome Table. Oriented toward members of the homeless community, it begins with optional Bible Study or 12-Step programs at 7:00 am. A worship service in which members of the community take active roles follows at 8:00 am and breakfast is served at 9:00. I would have loved the opportunity to be a part of that experience on Sunday morning, and my regret was even deeper when I learned that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams would be preaching at Epiphany’s main Sunday service on November 6. Unfortunately, my travel plans were already fixed when I learned of this.

On Tuesdays, Epiphany with the help of volunteers from other neighboring congregations, organizes “Street Church” at nearby Franklin Park. I was able to be a part of that experience and to talk with Interim Associate Rector the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing.

When I arrived at Epiphany, I was greeted on the street by a man who talked with me about the Street Sense newspaper, produced by members of the homeless community. It operates at Epiphany as well. He proudly pointed out the articles in the current edition that he had written and directed me to a woman nearby who was selling them. Street Sense operates on the same model as Madison’s own Street Pulse but the presence of its offices at Epiphany means that there is a constant stream of traffic, vendors, volunteers, staff.

In the kitchen, volunteers from Epiphany and the community were preparing sandwiches for the Street Church lunch. While they worked, Catriona and I chatted about Epiphany’s ministries and future. They are currently in the search process for a new rector, so it’s likely that there will be changes in the coming years. The physical plant clearly suffers from deferred maintenance. In fact, replacement of the Parish House’s slate roof, funded by a grant from the DC Preservation Society, is currently underway.

As we walked through the building, I could hear music. Epiphany has a weekly concert series at noon on Tuesdays and the Washington Bach Consort was rehearsing its program—Bach’s Cantata: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69. Also on the program was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 with organist Julie Vidrick Evans. My sympathies were torn. I would have loved to take in the free performance but had already committed to being with Street Church.

Eventually, we made the several blocks’ walk over to Franklin Park. Supplies for the Eucharist, tables, and the food were transported in shopping carts. As we walked, I chatted with one of the volunteers pushing a cart. He told me that he had been volunteering with Street Church for several years. He had heard about it at his church and thought that it was something he could easily do. His office was nearby.

It was a warm afternoon. Around the park are several food trucks and there are tables with folding chairs at various places. Many of the tables and park benches were taken by office workers eating their lunch and enjoying the balmy weather but the area that Street Church staked out seemed to be something of a boundary area that separated the lunching office workers from the homeless people who were occupying many benches with their belongings.

When the service started, the volunteers and visitors seemed to outnumber the homeless, but as we continued, people began to gather. The liturgy is adapted from the Book of Common Prayer. On this occasion, one of Epiphany’s seminarians offered the homily. Several familiar hymns were sung. After communion, the lunch was laid out for all.

Street Church was a powerful experience for me. To hear the gospel preached out in a park at mid-day, to see the body and blood of Jesus Christ shared with people whose lives have brought them to this place, where they are generally perceived by passers-by (and politicians) as nuisances, disgraces, and eyesores, but to see their dignity, and the community created around the Lord’s Table, is a profound witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist and the shared meal created community and it was obvious that there were deep bonds of love, care, and trust among the volunteers and the people who came to the table.

Catriona and I had talked about how easy it is for churches’ social justice ministries to function as and become social service agencies. Street Church provides its meal in the context of the Eucharist. The proclamation of the Word of God and the sharing of Christ’s body and blood offer nourishment for the soul, place the distribution of food in the context of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and shatter the barrier between service provider and guest (client?). As we come to the table we are all one body—Jew and Gentile, male and female, homeless and housed.

It’s also powerful symbolically that at the same time as preparations for Street Church took place, the Washington Bach Consort was rehearsing for its noon concert. Clearly there are tensions—musicians and volunteers share the same space in the last few minutes before they go their separate ways. But still, I was deeply touched by the presence of both of those groups and the way they were sharing their gifts and their passion. The church can be many things to many people. It can connect spiritually in many ways—through the beauty of music or the beauty, grace, and love of communion with pita bread and grape juice in a park.

 

 

Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City–St. Paul’s Richmond

Sabbatical Update

St. Paul’s has a rich and challenging history and has an interesting vision for ministry in its context. Like Grace, the choice of location opposite the State Capitol was strategic. There, the similarities between the two congregations end. St. Paul’s was built in the Greek Revival style. Grace, constructed 15 years later, is Neo-Gothic.

The built environment surrounding the two churches is also radically different. Compared to Richmond’s Capitol Square, Madison’s is both more intimate and more vibrant. Richmond’s Capitol Square is much more expansive than Madison’s. The Capitol itself is set back much further from the street giving the square more of a park-like feeling. Perhaps it was only because I visited on a fairly warm day but there were relatively few people in view. A few were eating there lunch on benches on a tree-lined sidewalk inside the high iron fences but the sidewalks surrounding the Capitol were largely empty. I didn’t take a full inventory but my impression was that St. Paul’s was the only non-governmental building around the square. There were no restaurants, retail, banks as there are on Madison’s Capitol Square. Moreover, St. Paul’s is oriented away from the square. Its main entrance is on Grace St. which forms the (roughly) northern axis of the square. Its walls on the side facing the Capitol are monumental and unfriendly.

But once you turn down Grace St., there’s a very different feel.Just beyond the main entrance to the nave is a courtyard and a few feet within that courtyard a covered passageway that connects the nave to the rest of the church’s facilities. There is access to  the garden within the courtyard during the day.

Inside, the church seems to be bustling with activity. I visited on Wednesday evening and again on Thursday. On Wednesday evenings, they present an alternative, contemplative worship service at 6:00, followed by a simple supper. Other groups (bible studies, book groups) eat at the same time and then convene separately for their discussions.

The contemplative service, “Center,” combines communal worship with opportunities for private devotion. There’s a labyrinth on the floor, stations with icons and other prompts for spiritual reflection, and opportunities for creative expression. It’s a lovely, intimate, spirit-filled time. Leaders and participants were somewhat self-conscious about the low attendance the week I was there. I was moved as I watched worshipers engage with the various opportunities for spiritual enrichment.

On Thursday, I had lunching conversation with St. Paul’s clergy. When I arrived around 12:30 pm, the Parish Hall was full of people participating in St. Paul’s weekly lunch for the homeless. Many years ago, Richmond’s downtown churches collaborated on the effort to provide weekday lunches for the homeless. A healthy and hearty meal is prepared and I could hear occasional singing accompanied by a piano.

I came to St. Paul’s largely to get a first-hand look at their downtown ministries. In 2012, they created a position of “Downtown Missioner” with the express goal of connecting St. Paul’s with the downtown community. Melanie Mullen has held the position for four years now and talked about all of the expectations and ideas that were brought together in the original position description and how it has evolved over the years as she has lived into the position. Now, she focuses on several areas. One is worship–she is responsible for developing and leading Center. She is also involved in community organizing and the Laundry Love effort which is a monthly activity at a downtown laundry.

In addition to all of that, St. Paul’s hosts a weekly lecture series on Friday noons entitled “Eyes on Richmond” with speakers and lunch catered by local restaurants. The week before I was there, they had hosted a mayoral forum that focused on the criminal justice system.

St. Paul’s is a vibrant and remarkable church. They conversations they have begun about their history and legacy are important and can serve as a model for other such conversations that need to take place, not only around slavery and the confederacy, but around other issues where the Episcopal Church has been complicit in and profited from oppression. St. Paul’s is also creating innovative ministries and missions to connect with their neighbors and wider community. The questions they are asking are questions we all should be asking, or reflecting on how our particular contexts might give rise to different questions and different opportunities for mission.

 

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.

The burden of history and the possibilities of space

I spent the last week with an amazing group of Episcopal clergy who impressed me with their deep faith, their commitment to their ministries and communities, and their passion. Among the matters we discussed at some length, even though it wasn’t a theme of our meetings, was the future of the church in the midst of structural decline, demographic transformation, and a changing cultural context.

As I thought about those conversations, my own context, and my time in Richmond, I was struck by the burdens of history that we carry with us. For most of the clergy gathered together, a common experience was the histories of their parishes. Sometimes the burden of history plays itself out in patterns of conflict that recur over decades and generations. Sometimes the burden of history is the fading memories of a glorious past. Sometimes the burden of history is the sheer weight of a building that was constructed in and for a different time and context that demands enormous financial resources and limits our creativity and flexibility.

We’ve inherited a church that was designed for and adapted to the second half of the twentieth century and while that church served us well, it is singularly unfit for the present moment. Of course, I am speaking about our organizational structures, but the same thing could be said of our physical spaces. They were designed to serve a certain vision of church and to create certain kinds of community. We’ve tried to adapt our spaces at Grace to connect more effectively with our neighborhood and wider community. But our commitments to the integrity of the building and our traditional worship style prevented us from going further to reimagine our worship space for the twenty-first century.

For us at Grace, the burden of history can narrow our vision and our physical space can limit our imagination. But as I walked the streets of Richmond and visited St. Paul’s, I experienced the burden of history on a completely different level. I’m speaking of course of the legacies of slavery, the Confederacy and Civil War, and the Lost Cause.

St. Paul’s used to be called the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Jefferson Davis was worshiping there when he received word that Lee was withdrawing from Petersburg, leaving Richmond exposed to the Union Army. Davis left quietly and began his flight across the Confederacy. In the decades after the end of the war, St. Paul’s fabric was decorated with images of the Confederate battle flag and stained glass windows are said to have the faces of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in images of Moses and St. Paul.

Recently, St. Paul’s has been engaging with its history and with the Confederate imagery displayed throughout its building. A story on that conversation, including the decision to remove images of the battle flag is here. St. Paul’s presentation of its history can be seen here.

A similar debate is occurring at the National Cathedral. Having removed images of the Confederate battle flag from stained glass windows, attention has now turned to the images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The windows honoring the two generals were installed in 1953 with the support of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

But even if images are removed from all churches, the heavy burden of the past would continue to weigh down Christian churches. So, for example, the imposing statue of General Jeb Stuart on Richmond’s Monument Ave is surrounded by churches: UCC, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, which reminds of nothing so much as the ancient Christian practice of constructing churches and worshiping in the vicinity of martyrs’ graves.

Episcopalians in other parts of the country may breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to address directly the legacy of the Confederacy and slavery. Our historical burdens may be less obvious but they exist if we bother to explore our past in depth. The wealth accumulated from slavery was widely distributed, north and south. Our close identification with the nation and with the American aristocracy has implicated us in Colonialism, the destruction of Native American culture and communities, and has created barriers to our full embrace of our nation’s diversity.

For us to thrive in the twenty-first century, we must not only engage with the sins of our past. We must also be willing to allow our sclerotic institutional structures to die, adapt ourselves to the present and future, and make our spaces places of invitation and welcome to all. A question at the forefront of all our conversations should be how is our space experienced by visitors and newcomers? What do they see and feel when they enter?

 

Evangelism and Sacred Space: Sabbatical Update 1

I’m a week into my sabbatical and have a few minutes to reflect on what I’m doing and where I’ve been. I’m calling my sabbatical project “Evangelism and Sacred Space,” which may sound exciting or off-putting, or both. Briefly put, I’m interested in how churches can respond to the rapidly changing religious scene in twenty-first century America, with growing numbers of people no longer identifying themselves as religious or as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In addition, people who do self-identify as religious or Christian are practicing their Christianity very differently than previous generations, with much lower regular attendance and institutional commitment. These trends have radical implications for congregations and denominations.

But those demographics are only part of what intrigues me. In Madison, for example, there is significant population growth downtown with millennials and retirees drawn to the restaurants, entertainment, and lifestyle of a vibrant downtown. So a second piece of my interest is in city planning and urbanism, specifically how can churches participate in creating vital neighborhoods and communities. Many city planners talk about “third places,” spaces in addition to home and workplace where people can find community and connection. Churches are often cited as examples of third places but it’s rare that churches actively think about how they can create such spaces for people besides their own members.

It seems to me that some churches have something to offer, namely sacred space. To enter a space like the neo-Gothic Grace Church, for many people is to enter a space unlike any other they experience regularly. The beauty and transcendence of such spaces call out to the deep yearning in our souls for God, even if we have no vocabulary to describe that yearning. Opening our doors, truly becoming a “third space” for Madison, is not just about creating community, it is about inviting people into a spiritual journey, the goal of which is God.

Finally, I am interested in finding ways to deepen and broaden community across the divides of race, class, and religion. At Grace, we have been exploring for several years how we might address the deep racial inequities and divisions in Madison. We have also sought to be a witness to the positive value of interfaith work. I hope to learn from others who are doing similar work.

My travels will take me up the East Coast from Richmond to Boston, to Seattle and Portland, and finally to San Antonio, where I will join my wife at the American Academy of Religion meeting and hopefully find time for a quick trip to Austin.

At the end of it all, I hope to be able to share with Grace and with anyone else who is interested some of my reflections on what I’ve learned, and some questions that might spur our own future work.