Sunday, January 27, 2008

The decaying urban church

The New York Times paints a familiar portrait of an ailing church that was once a Jewish center:
She and the other members worship on the Sabbath, filling the church each Saturday, where they are flanked by rich-hued stained glass windows depicting the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, the story of Esther and other scenes from the Hebrew Bible.

“We once talked about taking out these windows,” said Paul Gregory Graham, who was an associate pastor 10 years ago. “Talk about cultures changing, many of us are from a West Indian background, so what does this mean to us?”

A lot more than people thought. One Saturday, Mr. Graham preached an entire sermon on the history of the Jewish people using the windows as vivid illustrations. There were lessons to be learned, he said, from their respective journeys. “These windows are a history of a people and their worship,” he said. “They give us tradition.”

Throughout the city, houses of worship built in the last century for Jewish and Christian immigrants from Europe are now home to congregations with roots in Latin America, the Caribbean or the American South. Some are grand palaces that occupy a regal spot in a neighborhood, while others are modest halls nearly indistinguishable from bland storefronts. They sustain communities by helping slake spiritual and material thirsts.

Many of these buildings are under threat, crumbling from years of neglect and deferred maintenance in the case of impoverished congregations, or becoming targets for acquisition by developers in neighborhoods where choice real estate is scarce.

Preservationists have begun to sound alarms, warning that rich urban traditions of art, religion and community service are imperiled.

“You see in these buildings history and continuity, and the influence of new populations and new religions,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “The face of the city will change and an important part of our history will be lost if these buildings disappear.”

This is not a phenomenon unique to New York, but is in fact afflicting urban churches and religious centers throughout the country. As people have fled to the suburbs and exurbs, finding or creating megachurches there, beautiful, history-filled sanctuaries have been left behind, some to rot, others to struggle along.

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