Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In Wake of Charleston Shootings, Should Places of Worship Get Guns?

While most of North America is expressing admiration for the way family and friends of those killed in Charleston, South Carolina are responding with forgiveness to murderer Dylann Roof, others are using the situation to help pastors and other church members use guns to defend themselves. This isn’t the first time that has happened, as I wrote about in 2007 about the shootings at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. It also raises the question of how places of worship should prepare for emergencies.

I wasn’t shocked to learn about the church shooting at New Life Church in Colorado Springs in October. Guns are so ubiquitous in that country, and shootings in public places so common, that it hardly seems unusual any more—even in a church.

I was surprised, however, to learn that New Life Church utilizes between 15-20 security guards, some of whom are armed, to patrol the premises during its services.

Jeanne Assam, the security guard who killed the gunman, was stationed in the church's central rotunda as part its overall evacuation and defence plan.

Assam, who once worked as a police officer, attends one of the morning services and then volunteers as a guard during the other service.

“That's the reality of our world," said New Life pastor Brady Boyd about the church’s security system, which includes an evacuation plan to hustle worshippers into secure areas in case of emergencies.

“I don't think any of us grew up in churches where that was the reality, but today it is.”

New Life is not exceptional. It is becoming more common for U.S. churches to have guards and security plans. It’s particularly true for mega churches, which can attract thousands of people to worship services—and where weekly offerings can reach as much as $100,000.

Concern for security in places of worship has spawned an industry devoted to helping protect churches and other places of worship.

One such business was Church Security Services. Now apparently out of business (as of November, 2017), its website listed recent crimes in churches—an assault on a woman in Florida, shootings in Louisiana and Missouri, robberies in Maryland and New York.

It asks: “Does this seem like a safe place to have your family?”

“Churches are really easy pickings if you think about it,” says Dale Annis, who directed the company. “You've got several hundred people, all in one place with their heads down and their eyes closed. I tell my security team to pray with their eyes open.”

Concern about security is probably not at the top of the list for most Canadian churches—most Christians are more worried about how to get more people in than ways to screen visitors in order to keep some out.

But Jews and Muslims have had to pay attention to this issue for a long time.

After 9/11, many mosques stepped up security; the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) offers a Muslim Community Safety Kit on its web site that suggests, among other things, installing alarms, cutting down high vegetation around the building, installing exterior lighting and creating a security committee.

Many synagogues have also developed procedures to handle things like telephone threats, hate mail and potential letter and parcel bombs.

Although churches in Canada will likely never face the kind of violence that is so prevalent in the U.S., it’s still appropriate to prepare for worst-case scenarios by having evacuation plans in case of fire or storms, or plans to respond to unruly or violent visitors.

"No one enjoys talking about safety and security issues, particularly in the church,” says Jeff Hanna, a former detective, pastor and author of Safe and Secure: The Alban Guide to Protecting Your Congregation.

"But we are called to be good stewards. That includes protecting our buildings, assets, and most importantly, people."

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pope Francis and Climate Change, or Do Rocks Have Rights?

On June 18 Pope Francis will release a papal letter on climate change. Through it, he will inject a moral dimension to the various scientific arguments, in hopes of building more support for action against climate change by Catholics and others around the world. This is not the first time people have tried to invoke morality in the fight against climate change, as I noted a few years ago in my Winnipeg Free Press column.

2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by Great Britain. It was in 1807 that the British Parliament signed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the first step towards the worldwide eradication of the African slave trade.

Today, it seems obvious that people should not be bought, sold and enslaved. But back then the prevailing view was that the slave trade was a brutal, but necessary evil.

Stopping the slave trade, it was argued, would have negative economic consequences—jobs would be affected, and whole economies devastated.

Only a few people believed it was wrong. One of them was William Wilberforce, a courageous Christian Member of the British Parliament. For 20 years, he tirelessly advocated for an end to buying and selling of human beings before the law was passed.

The abolition of slavery is one example of how humans have evolved ethically over time. But while we have made progress in human rights, we have not done as well when it comes to extending rights to the earth. 

And that, some people argue, is what it will take if we are to do anything about climate change, that real change won’t occur until people believe that it is morally wrong to abuse the planet.

Not wrong because it has negative economic consequences, or because it will negatively affect our way of life. And not even wrong because we will die if the earth is no longer able to sustain human life.

Put simply, it’s wrong because that’s no way to treat anyone or anything. 

Rocks, in other words, have rights, too.

This is a radical shift in thinking. Traditionally, we have thought of rights as belonging only to human beings. But more and more people today are arguing that the earth is not to be prized because it sustains life, but because it has value in and of itself.

One of the earliest to suggest this was Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management in the U.S.

In his classic essay, The Land Ethic, Leopold said the next human moral evolution would be the expansion of ethics to govern our relationship to the earth.

Before he died in 1948, he proposed the following ethic for the way we deal with the environment: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the earth. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

The land ethic, he said, "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, animals or, collectively: the land."

Wendell Berry, a Christian environmentalist, author and farmer, also has added his voice to this larger way of viewing the earth. 

Berry’s goal is to help people see the sacredness of the material world, together with its non-human inhabitants. He argues that the earth and all its creatures are valuable not just because they were created by God, but because they are expressions of the divine.

Says Berry: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us."

What we need to do, he added, is "recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

And now Pope Francis is adding his considerable moral authority to the issue. As Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, put it: 

“Pope Francis is personally committed to this [climate] issue like no other pope before him. The encyclical will have a major impact. It will speak to the moral imperative of addressing climate change in a timely fashion in order to protect the most vulnerable.”

Will it make a difference? Already the critics are lining up against him. But two centuries ago people in Great Britain also opposed William Wilberforce when he proclaimed that it was immoral to enslave human beings.

One day, just like in the battle against slavery, we will also come to believe that it is morally wrong to abuse the earth.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Keeping Faith in Historic Churches

Holy Trinity Church.

In 2010, I did a feature piece in the Winnipeg Free Press about the plight of historic churches in Manitoba and across the country. I was reminded of it when I learned the former St. Giles United Church in Winnipeg is once again for sale. 

Two years ago, First English Lutheran Church on Maryland Avenue—a fixture in Winnipeg’s west end since 1911—faced an uncertain future.

Sold in 2003 when its dwindling congregation that could no longer afford to maintain it, the church was home to a judo studio before a developer tried, unsuccessfully, to convert it to condos.

Then, in 2008, new life was breathed into the historic structure when Grant Memorial Baptist Church started using it for a new ministry. Today it is home to City Church, a thriving congregation of about 400 people, 90 per cent of them newcomers to Canada from Asia and Africa.

"It's been terrific for us," says City Church co-pastor Tim Nielson. "It was a real answer to prayer."

When it comes to historic places of worship in Winnipeg, there are a lot of people praying—praying and working hard to find funds to fix leaking roofs, old furnaces, cracked plaster, sinking foundations, drafty windows and a host of other repair, upgrade and routine maintenance issues.

That's what's happening at Augustine United, better known as the Village Church. It's one of the city's highest profile and much-loved churches. But it's also trying to keep its doors open.

Built in 1903, and designated as a historic church two years ago, Augustine has a long history of helping others.

But now it's the church itself that's in need of help, to the tune of $750,000 for a new boiler system, to fix the leaky roof, and to repair the stained glass windows.

"I spend a lot of time on fundraising and grant applications," pastor Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd said. "This isn't what I was trained to do."

Augustine United.

A similar situation is unfolding at Trinity Lutheran Church, in the city's north end.

Founded 122 years ago, the congregation moved into its present church in the 1960s.

But even if the building is, by historic standards, youthful, it's facing the same issues as other core area churches: An aging congregation that is getting smaller in numbers every year, while maintenance and repair bills keep growing.

Over the years, Trinity tried knocking on doors and inviting people to worship in an effort to increase membership. It didn't work.

Facing a bleak future, the congregation decided to put the building up for sale in 2005.

"Nobody was interested," says pastor Ron Nelson, citing the church's location as a main reason for the lack of buyers.

At first, their inability to sell was disappointing. Later, the congregation saw it as a call from God to serve the community. Today Trinity hosts a variety of ministries that serve the community.

But the repair bills keep adding up; Nelson estimates that the church needs between $30,000 to $50,000 for repairs to the roof and for new windows—money they don't have.

"This congregation is not going to be around much longer," he says, noting that about 30 people, most of them older, come to worship on Sunday mornings.

"I'm 70, and I'm one of the younger ones."

*      *     *

The challenges facing churches like First English Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran aren't unusual—many older places of worship in Winnipeg's core area are facing the same predicament.

It's a worrisome situation for Cindy Tugwell, Executive Director of Heritage Winnipeg.

"Historic churches are some of the most beautiful structures in the city, and an important part of our heritage," she says. "How can they be sustainable in the 21st century, when congregations are declining? How can they become economically viable?"

Former First English Lutheran.

For every success story like First English Lutheran, which found new life as home for another congregation, Tugwell knows that there are many other churches where the members might one day just find it easier to lock the door and walk away.

"Winnipeggers love their heritage buildings, and we have a great collection of them in our city, including churches," she says.

But unless congregations get financial help from all three levels of government, she's afraid that many of these structures might disappear—in Winnipeg, around the province, and across Canada.

"This is an issue for cities across the country," she says.

*      *     *

As Executive Director of the Heritage Canada Foundation, Natalie Bull probably knows better than almost anyone the dire situation facing old places of worship in Canada.

"It's a crisis . . . a real epidemic," she says of the large number of churches that are up for sale across the country.

Sometimes communities find other uses for these venerable buildings. But, she says, too often "there is no other adaptable use on horizon."

What makes a church hard to sell? Their age, location and the cost of repairs are all major factors.

Official church policies can also pose challenges; some church groups have clear rules for what can or can't be done in a former place of worship—an art gallery might be OK, but a nightclub is out.

Sometimes, a congregation doesn't want to sell their building; they want it to continue as a place of worship, but they lack the expertise needed to keep it in good repair.

"Faith groups are not in the heritage business," says Bull, noting that old churches are complicated to maintain and repair. "They don't know what to do."

Trinity Lutheran.

Bull believes that something needs to be done quickly if Canada's historic churches are to be saved.

"We need to see them similar to way we see lighthouses, railway stations and grain elevators," she says. "Losing them would be a loss to our communities."

*      *     *

What's creating this crisis? In a nutshell, Canadians aren't going to church as much as they used to.

This is especially true for the older mainline denominations. The Anglican Church of Canada, for example, is losing 13,000 members every year; a recent report prepared for that church's bishops suggests that it faces extinction by 2050.

Membership in the United Church, meanwhile, has fallen from 1.4 million in 1961 to 545,000 today; according to media spokesperson Mary-Frances Denis, the denomination has been closing a church every week for the past 12 years.

Over at the Presbyterian Church of Canada, membership fell 39 percent from 1961-2001. Lutherans are doing better; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada only lost 5.2 percent of its members, while the Lutheran Church of Canada went down just 1.9 percent.

Attendance at Roman Catholic churches has also dropped, with only about 30 percent of Roman Catholics going to Mass regularly.

Fewer people at services means fewer dollars in the offering plate, and also a need for fewer churches.

All of which puts these grand structures in danger—unless new ways can be found to keep them going.

That's where Bob Jaeger, Executive Director of Partners for Sacred Places, comes in.
Headquartered in Philadelphia, Pa., Partners describes itself as "the only national organization providing practical assistance on property care and stewardship, focusing on community-serving, historic, religious properties."

For Jaeger, that means giving the congregations of historic places of worship "the tools they need to help them articulate the larger public value of their buildings, so they can attract new funders, partners and donors."

And how can they do that? Surveys done by Partners show that 91 percent of historic churches are open to the wider community, that congregants provide more than 5,000 volunteer hours—the equivalent of two and a half full time employees—and about $140,000 in subsidies in the form of free space or donations.

At the same time, its surveys show that 81 percent of people who use downtown church buildings are not members.

In other words, these "sacred places have public value," says Jaeger, noting that these churches, which are usually located in downtown or core areas, provide a host of necessary services for the homeless, the hungry, for youth, seniors, children, disabled people and immigrants, among many others.

Despite, this, governments fail to recognize the important role historic churches play in their neighbourhoods.

"An active church benefits the community," he says.

*      *     *

So: Where to from here?

Heritage Winnipeg's Tugwell believes that the City and the Province need to be more deliberate about helping congregations save their places of worship, or come up with alternative uses.

More money would help, too.

Westminster United Church. Mike Deal photo, Winnipeg Free Press.

"Governments have to get behind restoration from a social perspective," she says, adding that restored places of worship can "help with the rehabilitation of a declining neighbourhood."

All three levels of governments "need to offer stronger incentives to maintain and preserve old churches, and help churches access money for preventative maintenance."

Heritage Canada's Bull thinks that people across Canada need to work together more.

To help accomplish this, she helps organize the National Places of Faith Roundtable, which brings together people from across Canada who are concerned about the future of this country's historic places of worship.

At the 2009 meeting, participants identified areas of concern such as the lack of educational materials to help congregations preserve or repurpose their buildings; the need to convince communities about the important role places of worship play in their towns and cities; and the high costs of maintaining and preserving historic places of worship.

But they also shared success stories. "We can learn from what working in other provinces," says Bull.

For Jaeger of Partners for Sacred Places, this is a time for creativity.

"You tell the story of all the lives your church has touched—the weddings and baptisms, the funerals, the organ concerts. You reach out to the groups that have used it. You put on homecomings that bring people back. And all of that can be empowering."

He also encourages congregations looking for assistance to list all the ways they serve people in their surrounding area, and put a value on it.

The goal is to "make a case, to show how the building is a public asset," he says, adding that "churches need to broaden the family who cares about the building."

*      *     *

That's what Winnipeg's Trinity Lutheran is doing. The church has made its building available to other groups who want to either use it for worship services, or to offer services in the community.

Groups now calling it home include the First Nation's Family Worship Centre, Aberdeen Mennonite Church and Secret Place, which offers meals to people in the area on a weekly basis.

Former St. Giles United Church.

"They just keep coming," says Nelson of the various groups that want to use the church building.

They could accommodate more groups, he adds, but "storage is an issue. Each group needs some storage area."

Sharing their facility with so many groups is also challenging—schedules have to be coordinated, space shared, rooms locked.

"I don't know any congregation that wouldn't like to be by themselves," he says. "But this was the best way to keep the church going. It was either this or shut down."

Each of the groups that uses the building pays rent, but that's also a challenge: Churches typically don't see themselves as landlords, and pastors aren't trained to manage relationships with tenants, or to collect overdue rent.

"Some of the groups that use facilities don't have much money, and some are not used to paying rent," says Nelson.

Despite the challenges, the experience has been good for the congregation, he says.

"Our definition of church has changed. We've gone from being a church for German Lutherans to being a church for the community. We've been learning what the Gospels are talking about."

Does it Matter if a Historic Church Closes?

The former St. Giles United Church in Winnipeg is for sale  (And cheap—just $149,000.) The historic building is just one of the many old churches in Canada that are coming up on the real estate market. I wrote about St. Giles in 2010 as part of a feature article in the Winnipeg Free Press about the plight of historic churches in Manitoba and across the country.

For more than 100 years, St.Giles Presbyterian Church has been a fixture on Burrows Avenue.

The church began as a mission church in 1884 in the North End. It quickly grew, and a larger facility was built in 1886. 

When that was full, a third church was built in 1889. When that building became too small, a fourth church was erected in 1908 at the corner of Burrows and Charles Street.

In 1925, St. Giles voted to join the United Church. By then, it had a congregation of almost 500 people and one of the largest Sunday schools in Winnipeg.

By the 1960s, the church's fortunes began to decline as members moved to the suburbs. In the early 1970s, the United Church Mission Board withdrew its annual grant and in 1972, the congregation of 100 voted to disband.

A year later, the building was sold to the Mennonite Church, becoming the Burrows Bethel Mennonite Church. When that church disbanded in 1995, the building was given to the Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship, a Baptist church that worships in it today.

The story of St. Giles Presbyterian is a microcosm for Christianity, and for historic churches, in Manitoba and Canada over the past 50 years.

There’s a crisis confronting Canadian places of worship today. Thousands of older churches face uncertain futures due to declining attendance and onerous repair and maintenance bills.

So far, the story of St. Giles is a good one. It still functions as a church. Others aren’t so lucky. 

Some have been demolished to make way for new buildings. A few have been converted into offices, condos, concert halls, dance studios, restaurants or bars. But many more are ending up unneeded and unwanted—empty, abandoned and derelict.

But so what? Who cares if a church closes? Buildings of all kinds come and go all the time. And don’t Christians believe that God lives in human hearts, not buildings, anyway?

Old church buildings matter for a lot of reasons. They tie us to the past. As some of the oldest buildings in most communities, they are physical reminders of our history and heritage.

For the many people who came to Canada as immigrants in the 20th century, these churches matter because they were the places where they found welcome, refuge, support, clothing, money, food and other supports for strangers in a strange new land.

Later, as these immigrant populations became established, they helped preserve their language and culture, enabling them passing it on to succeeding generations.

For others, old churches matter because of strong emotional connections. They are places where they, their parents or grandparents were married, or where they were baptized as babies.  

They are places where the lives of loved ones were celebrated when they died. They are places filled with sacred memories, both happy and sad.

Old churches also matter to those who never worshipped in them. Historic churches are often anchors in a community, a geographical touchstone, a way of letting you know you are home when you see the steeple. It gives a neighbourhood some of its character.

But those aren't the only reasons old churches matter. Since most of them are found in core areas, they provide or host important services for many—organizations and ministries that address issues such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy, addictions, or that serve children, youth, families, seniors, newcomers and people with disabilities, among others.

But now many of they historic churches are in big trouble. It's a simple matter of economics: It's impossible to pay the heat, water and hydro bills, plus salaries and all the regular maintenance, when only a few people attend services and the offerings are so small.

The best-case scenario would be for them to find new life as homes for new congregations, as happened to St. Giles. But even then it’s a big challenge to find funds for repairs and upkeep. 

The Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship congregation has had to spend money to add a sprinkler system, fix the boiler and put on a new roof—all on a shoestring budget. And there’s more work that needs to be done.

"I try to tap any angle possible for funds," said pastor Dietrich Desmarais, noting that the burden of keeping the building going is too great for his small congregation.

So does it matter if an old church closes? It matters to the members of Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship. 

It matters to those in the area who receive services through it. 

It matters to the community, which doesn’t want an empty, run-down building in the neighbourhood. 

And it should matter to all who care about history and heritage.

But the future of St. Giles, and other historic churches, isn’t bright. As interest in religion wanes, and church attendance falls, it is less likely they will be able to serve their original purpose.

One day, it may once again be on the market. Unlike in the past, there may be no other church that wants to buy it.

It that happens, we may then, as Joni Mitchell sang, not know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

Also see my longer feature piece from the Free Press on this blog about the Canada-wide issue of historic churches.