I consult through “Bricks Without Straw,” a biblical reference about slaves being asked to do things they think they can’t do. How do you make bricks without straw, or live now without resources?
I frequently consult about “Bricks and Mortals," about church buildings and what an asset they are in the 21st century. They appear to be a problem but are actually an opportunity. By "Bricks and Mortals" I mean the extraordinary opportunity that exists hidden in plain site around religious buildings. The possibilities for adaptation are endless! And interesting. Congregations may be getting smaller, maintenance costs getting larger -- and Spirit can find ways to see ways forward!
We can remove the pews from our sacred sites and open and empty space for new revelations. We can also remove the pews from our min
Where most see problems in the rapid rate at which sacred sites are going out of business in New York, “Bricks and Mortals” sees an opportunity. “Bricks and Mortals” is the name of a new organization of religious institutions that sees the threat of endings as potential beginnings. Multiple opportunities are hidden in plain sight.
The problem with many sacred sites is the way religious institutions can’t maintain their buildings and often behave in mission inconsistent behavior. Membership decline joins deferred maintenance in giving mortals a lot of problems in keeping their bricks. We add to gentrification and racism when we sell out our property to the highest bidder. The opportunity for expanded and imaginative adaptation of sacred sites to new uses is lost.
With a little imagination, the Mayor’s beautiful city could benefit from these stranded assets by using them for low-income housing or to house multiple social services.
Already most congregations contribute through a halo effect (adding value to communities) www.sacredplaces.org/tools-research/halo-effect. They house soup kitchens, shelters, senior centers, day cares, AA, NA, counsel those who can’t get help elsewhere, not to mention providing places for the arts and music to shine, while supporting local business activity.
First Church, Jamaica, is the poster child for creative adaptation of sacred space and land. This highly replicable project (http://qns.com/story/2017/06/29/jamaica-tree-life-neighborhoods-largest-affordable-housing-complex-date/) is emblematic. Rev. Patrick O’Connor said it wasn’t easy getting this project off the ground because “the city notably lacks imagination.”
Multiple remedies abound for the lack of urban imagination.
The first is for the city to see the opportunity hiding in plain sight, corner-by-corner, borough-by-borough. Many congregations are already going out of their primary business or removing their pews on behalf of multiple uses. With proper technical assistance, congregations could help even more with the one thing the city needs most, which is affordable housing. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has already commissioned a study showing just how much sacred underused and underfunded space is available in Brooklyn, which could create even more of a halo effect than already exists around the Borough. The study is available through the Director of Land Use in Brooklyn, Richard Bearak.
A second obvious relief would extend itself to Landmarked Congregations. Around 120 exist and are not able to utilize the asset of their air rights because of narrow zoning laws, like ZR-74-79, which has been used exactly 12 times since its inception in 1968. Even the Department of City Planning agrees that “it doesn’t work,” and recommends, slyly, that perhaps transfer districts could be made more flexibly. Exactly that happened for St. Patrick’s, Central Synagogue and St. Bart’s with Midtown East development. Minimally, the mayor could extend “flexibility” to all congregations and not just rich ones.
A third imaginative relief would involve the congregations themselves, recognizing the doomsday scenario that they face and beginning to apply the leaven of hope to it. Removing pews opens sacred space to weeklong uses that communities need. Congregations that are in denial about their own demise need to band together to enter hospice and find a way to not be forced into the box Union Seminary faced when it “had to” create luxury housing on its Harlem campus in order to “survive.” Union was facing $150 million dollars in maintenance costs. There is literally no other place to get that kind of money than to sell air. Religious institutions don’t want to die – and even more, we don’t want to live compromised lives. Already many of us have gone under because our middle-class members left town. We are the last best hope to keep people in the city at affordable rates.
That is the opportunity hidden in plain site. Sacred assets are stranded. If we give them a home, the city will be the beautiful one it wants to be, for all. Now it is increasing its pace towards being the city for some.
With a little imagination, many congregations could survive and thrive spiritually as well.
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