Sunday, May 16, 2010

Super Deluxe Bonus Entry! :)

First, a warning, and a little background information:  The warning is that this is yet another post about my church, the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg.  So bail here if you have zero interest.  The background information is that last year our church, which for years has existed in a beautiful building in the suburbs of Harrisburg, PA, found itself in a pretty ideal position.  As lovely as our building is, we have outgrown it.  Yes, in a time when congregations are shrinking on average, our church has more than doubled in size in the last decade.  Considering that it is a bastion of liberal religion in a time when fundamentalist mega-churches are thriving, I think this is pretty cool.

So we began looking at the possibilities.  We could try to buy a bigger church if one was for sale; we could explore expanding our current building; we could tear down our existing building and build a new one on the current site.  There were advantages and disadvantages to each.  As to building on the current site, we could have done it if the geologic site survey came back favorably; after all, we would be looking at sinking a considerably larger and heavier foundation structure.  We were told by our architect that a new structure which contained all of the features for which we were looking would cost us between four and eight million dollars.  Ouch.

Remodeling the current building to accommodate the larger congregation would have cost almost as much. After all, our current building was built to accommodate 120 people back when the congregation was about 65 members.  To show that level of foresight with our current congregation, we would have to build a sanctuary that seated at least 750 people.  Big.  Cathedral stuff.

Then, lightning struck.  We became aware of a beautiful old brick church downtown, in the heart of a severely depressed neighborhood, that had a capacity of 400+ but a current congregation of about 20 souls.  We could purchase it for a relative song -- well under half a million dollars -- and actually do the social justice outreach and proverbial "good work" that we had always talked about doing but never had the wherewithal to accomplish, what with being out in the comfortable suburbs and all.  Yes, the building needed considerable work, but it was in the right place at the right time, and all the money we would have spent on a new building could be put to work feeding and clothing the poor in the immediate neighborhood.  We could start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.  Seemingly a no-brainer, right?

Unitarian churches are famous for one thing, if they're famous for anything, and that is their congregational polity.  Meaning that we don't take orders from a higher organization, like, say, Rome.  Each church pays its own bills, hires its own minister, does its own work, etc.  Our church accomplishes this in an annual meeting.  Our meeting was today.  When the mere possibility of setting as a goal over the next five years holding our weekly services in the (gasp!) downtown church instead of in our too-small church in the 'burbs, the people who refuse to consider change went nuts.  I left in disgust, and I now give you the apology I plan to share on the UCH website and Google group:

"I Apologize"

I apologize to my fellow members of the congregation of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg for walking out in disgust during the Congregational Meeting today.  I found the discussion of whether or not to amend the agenda, or the timeline, or whatever that discussion was about, to be profoundly disturbing.

I am truly sorry that so many in my congregation are so bound up in the past that they seem unwilling to look to the future.  Make no mistake; I love the Clover Lane church.  It’s where I joined, and where my daughter was dedicated to our faith.  It is also entirely too small for our current needs, and a greenhouse in the summer months.  I sometimes despair of being a member of a church that, after all the time I have been a member, some thirteen years, has never been able to get it together enough to get air conditioning.  But I digress.

The work that we have decided as a congregation that we are called to do is not between two hotels on Eisenhower Boulevard.  It is among Harrisburg’s neediest.  We were fortunate enough to fall into a building that is not only big enough to accommodate many of our present needs, but to acquire it at a price that allows us to spend the monies we might have wasted on a new building on doing good works and improving the current building.  Additionally, the building is right in the heart of the work we say we want to do.

Surely we are not the first church who has outgrown its building.  Surely we can let go of the precious past and still respect that past while moving into a future of social justice and outreach work in our new neighborhood.  It would have been wonderful to have four or eight or ten million dollars to spend on a magnificent cathedral somewhere “nicer” downtown.  It is even more wonderful to have acquired a building at a fraction of that cost so that we can spend that other money in much more meaningful ways -- feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and clothing the needy.

I apologize for walking out and for allowing myself to get so angry that I could not respectfully articulate the sentiments I have just expressed.  I greatly fear that those of us who cannot look forward to a future that includes the Market Street church will find themselves with a wonderful glass A-frame building on Clover Lane, and little else.

1 comment:

  1. A postscript: My lovely wife has suggested that I do NOT post this on the UCH Google Group after all, since it may have the effect of adding to the division already festering in the congregation. I am not sure that I agree, but I bow to her superior experience and wisdom.