Sunday, October 25, 2015

New Use for Empty Churches

The former Lincoln Road church in Windsor.

Across Canada, churches are closing.

Aging and declining memberships, together with rising costs for repairs, are causing more congregations to walk away from their buildings.

Most of these churches belong to mainline congregations; the United Church alone is losing about 50 churches a year.

At the same time churches are emptying, another faith group is growing—and needs places to meet.

I’m talking about Muslims. With over one million adherents in Canada, it is one of the fastest-growing religions in the country.

The growth is putting pressure on Islamic meetingplaces across Canada.

“We have been experiencing this kind of steady increase for a while,” said Amin Elshorbagy, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, in a 2013 article in the National Post.
“We can see this in terms of the need to expand our infrastructure. Most of our Islamic centres are becoming very crowded.”

If Muslim meetingplaces are crowded, and many churches are empty—well, there’s an opportunity here. And some Muslims and Christians in Canada are taking advantage of it.

In August, the empty Lincoln Road United Church in Windsor, Ont. was sold to the Masjid Noor-Ul-Islam Madressa and Cultural Centre.

In Sydney, Nova Scotia, the unused Holy Redeemer church hall was sold to a group of Muslim families as a prayer and worship centre. 

Now something similar might happen in Winnipeg, where a group of Muslims has indicated an interest in buying the former St. Giles Presbyterian Church on Burrows Avenue. (Which I wrote about earlier on this blog.) 

Some Christians might find this to be unusual, or even unacceptable. But turning sacred spaces from one religion to another is not a new phenomenon.

One of the earliest conversions happened in 705 in Damascus, when a church dedicated to John the Baptist became the Grand Mosque, also known as the Umayyad Mosque.

And the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul had existed for about a thousand years as a church before it was converted into a mosque in 1453 following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

And it isn't only Muslims who have taken over the sacred spaces of others. Christianity has a rich history in this regard, too.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, when missionaries Christianized Europe, one of the common practices was for them to convert pagan shrines. One of the earliest stories involves St. Boniface.

As recounted by Bamber Gascoigne in his book, The Christians, Boniface marched into a pagan shrine in Germany where people worshipped a massive oak tree dedicated to Thor, the god of Thunder.

 Using an axe, he cut it down, and used the wood to build a chapel to St. Peter.

That was then. Today, the conversions are going the other way as Canadian Christianity experiences a profound upheaval.

It’s a win-win situation. Not only can Muslims find new places to worship, the present owners get out from under a financial burden which might threaten to sink them.

And since many of these churches are historic, the other winner is the rest of us, and the communities we live in, as we see these buildings revitalized, repaired and repurposed instead of becoming derelict or torn down.

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