As neighborhood centers, historic city churches are given new life

On a recent Sunday, Holy Trinity was rocking as worshipers from Minnesota Swahili Christian Congregation danced and sang beneath the high ceilings and vibrant stained-glass windows.

As neighborhood centers, historic city churches are given new life

The magnificent house of worship was built in 1920 and once held one of the largest Lutheran congregations. Today, there are only 200 regular Sunday worshippers. The original congregation, which was founded in 1920, has been able to open its doors to serve many community needs. It offers Swahili-language services and also serves as an emergency medical center for protests against George Floyd's 2020 killing.

"In the past two years, it has become clearer to me, that the Spirit has been leading us in places we never thought possible on our own," stated Ingrid Rasmussen (Holy Trinity's lead pastor).
Many historic churches in the United States built decades ago to house hundreds of thousands of worshippers have seen their numbers shrink and are now struggling with rising preservation costs and shrinking congregations. Many people are looking for new ways to use their buildings, which allows them to keep these sacred spaces viable and serve the communities they have anchored for decades.

Minneapolis landmark churches have hosted many events, including food pantries and Finnish language classes. They also host tai-chi and group discussions about reparations. They have also rented space to host events and programs such as preschools. This has brought in much-needed income and made their buildings free for community gatherings.

Bob Jaeger, president and CEO of Partners for Sacred Places, says that historic religious buildings are more than just cultural and civic landmarks. They also serve as social centers. Jaeger believes there is plenty of opportunity to do more in this area. Jaeger works with religious institutions across the country to plan and raise funds to repurpose their spaces.

He said, "Congregations are a great civic asset but they are often underused."

According to surveys, the United States is becoming more secular. However, overall churchgoing and membership are on the decline. Many smaller congregations have to sell their buildings because there are fewer people in the pews, which means that less money is coming in to support staffing and upkeep.

These problems have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic which has further slowed attendance. This has increased the demand for food, housing, and education ministries in both the faithful as well as the wider society.

This is especially true for low-income or minority communities, where informal networks based on faith are more trustworthy than authorities.

The Church of the Incarnation in Minneapolis, a century-old Catholic parish that is primarily Spanish-speaking, has renovated its garage to house a community minimarket, where 1,600 households who depend on the church for food have access to free groceries and other essential goods. A steady stream of families visited the minimarket on a cold Sunday to pick up blankets and sweaters as well as 10-lb. groceries. Bags of frozen chicken remained frozen even after being exposed to the sun for hours at the sanctuary's steps.

Incarnation renovated the basement and hosted COVID-19 vaccination clinics. Victor Guillen, a three-decade-old church member, said that the clinics attracted "tons" of people.

Guillen stated that people come to us because we are a central point for the Latino community.

Similar to other churches, the benefits of launching service programs have been increasing volunteerism, and attracting more donors. Incarnation was able to complete a $1million roof restoration, which is almost finished.

Surplus space in religious buildings can also be used to provide cash-strapped groups with a venue for their gatherings. This is especially important in areas where rents and property values are high.

The mid-2010s saw the birth of Neighborhood Church, a new church in Atlanta's Candler Park. It was the result of the merging of two United Methodist congregations. The proceeds from the sale of a larger church building were used to fund a renovation of the smaller one. This structure was built in the 1930s and was redesigned to reduce Christian imagery to better serve the neighborhood, Andy Woodworth and Anjie Woodworth stated.

It hosts the congregation, two voting precincts, and, when the pandemic permits it, more than a dozen organizations that share the church’s inclusive values. These groups range from scouting troopers to advocates for transgender rights.

Andy Woodworth stated, "We are creating space for welcoming." "Opening the church this way puts us in touch with many more people."

Another congregation that is increasingly turning outwards to the community is Coppin Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, an aging congregation on Chicago's South Side. Coppin is struggling to maintain the almost century-old building, which has two murals, and has seen its membership drop to one-tenth what it was in 1960s.

Frankye Parham directs Coppin’s Christian education and community center. The Coppin Community Center provides food and family outreach programs at its youth center. This has helped the congregation attract grants and grow its service ministry.

Coppin's neighborhood youth sought Coppin as a "safe place" from violence. The church is currently developing a new teen ministry.

"The traditional methods don't work anymore." Frankye's husband Robert Parham said that we need to discuss different issues the community deals with." He was a trustee and first attended Coppin over 50 years ago.

Similar problems faced Christ Church Lutheran's congregation, a mid-20th century National Historical Landmark created by Eliel Saarinen. "Wondering if the doors could still be open," Mary Bode, who has been a member of the church for over 30 years and a volunteer, said.

Partners for Sacred Places helped the church to create a preservation committee to protect its pale-brick and blond wood building. It is located in a tree-lined area of bungalow homes. Since then, it has expanded to include other community uses for the building and its connected education building. These range from Montessori preschool classes to basketball teams.

Christ Church Lutheran, like many others in the area, sought to promote healing after Floyd's death. On the anniversary of Floyd's death, May 2021 saw community members gather in the Modernist open courtyard, where Miriam Samuelson Roberts, the lead pastor, left a laminated guide to reflection and prayer.

She said, "People came and sat in the church who might not have otherwise." It's vital for neighbors to have a place to meet.

Some cities have had to fight against municipal authorities for using religious buildings for non worship purposes, such as homeless shelters. Faith leaders are often successful in convincing authorities that these ministries are vital to their mission and the community.

Randi Roth, executive Director of Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul in Minnesota, said that each faith has its own texts that make it imperative to do so. The group has been working closely with the city planner to amend the zoning codes. It brings to life for everyone the words they have read in prayer.