Buildings That Declare Resurrection
It’s not news that many of our spiritual institutions – of every faith – are struggling. Membership is down. Finances are down. Energy is down. Many of our congregations are aging and – in the life cycle of a congregation – they are dying.
I come from a tradition that believes in resurrection – and not only in the heavens. Before moving to Charlotte in 2018, I served Presbyterian congregations in New York, Virginia, and Illinois, and for two years, I served as Co-Moderator of the General Assembly of my denomination. I used to joke that serving as Co-Moderator was much like being Miss America for the church. I visited congregations across the United States and abroad to hear about their ministries and projects, including some on affordable housing.
Resurrection undeniably happens when congregations choose to let something die so that something else can be created. That is the story of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.
This church was bleeding money for unglamorous building needs, those repairs that are expensive and necessary but nobody sees: re-plumbing a bathroom, re-wiring the Education Wing. Arlington Presbyterian Church sat on a busy block of Columbia Pike, about three miles south of the Pentagon. When the congregation considered what God was calling them to be and do in ministry, they landed on the issue of affordable housing. Like Charlotte, Arlington’s housing is dense and expensive. Teachers and police officers, not to mention low wage earners, are increasingly being priced out of the market.
Under the leadership of the Reverend Sharon Core - and after much prayer and conversation - the congregation decided to sell its 87-year-old stone building and the land beneath to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH). The plan was to build two towers, with one-bedroom apartments on one side and two-bedroom apartments on the other side. The church would use the first floor of the new structure for worship space, a clothing closet, offices, and classrooms.
This process took a long time. There were theological conversations. (“The Church is not a building.”) There were sentimental journeys. (“We were married in this church.” “I was baptized here.”) There were multiple hoops to leap through. (The denominational mid-council was not easily convinced.) There were county issues. (Re-zoning.)
It was six years from the first conversations in the church until construction. In the coming months, the 173 affordable apartments will be dedicated. Tenants are expected to move into their new apartments before the end of 2019.
The church sold the land to APAH for $8.5 million, 20 percent below market value. Arlington County loaned APAH about $18 million for the purchase and construction. The apartments will be called Gilliam Place for Ronda Gilliam, a member of the congregation who started its community clothing closet in the 1960s. Some of the stones from the old church building are repurposed into the new space for the congregation. The church even bought back a small grassy patch of land to create a small park on land that the developers did not plan to use.
Razing a traditional place of worship is not for all congregations. But for some congregations, this kind of project might declare resurrection to the community.
Jan Edmiston is the General Presbyter at the Presbytery of Charlotte. She recently served as Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, and previously in a series of roles at The Presbytery of Chicago. Previous to mid-council work, Jan was a parish pastor for 22 years for congregations in New York and Virginia. You can read more from Reverend Edmiston at achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com