By Cole Hartin
Some of the most rewarding work I do happens when I am blissfully unaware of my physical surroundings. Psychologists call this a “state of flow,” in which we become completely enmeshed in the task at hand. Time flies by. We feel satisfied with what we’re doing. We stop thinking so much about ourselves.
For me, most of this is word work — preparing for sermons, sketching Bible studies, or writing — and because I find this work compelling, it so engrosses me that my physical surroundings can fall into a sorry state. Of course, the work I am doing is immeasurably more important than my cluttered office space, but the latter should not simply be dismissed outright.
I think the work we do as a Church is so vital that we (often rightly) lose sight of secondary realities, such as the physical structures where we do ministry. The real work of the Church is the worship of God and the proclamation of the gospel. This includes hearing the Word of God and the sacramental life; it means feeding the hungry, and teaching children the faith. All of this is crucial, and certainly worth our full attention. Still, for many of us, our life of worship is housed in a building. While caring for our worship space is not our mission, at times it is still worthy of theological reflection.
I’ve been thinking a lot about church buildings because the one in which I serve has been recently been painted. I am told has been needed for a long time, but as I said, I seldom notice these things. While a repainting a church interior may be a luxury, on the storm battered East Coast, regular painting is the only way to protect wooden church buildings from rotting and decay. Because of an anonymous donation given to the church for this purpose and given that New Brunswick has been relatively unscathed by COVID-19, this was the summer to make the painting happen.
St. Luke’s, the congregation I serve in the city of Saint John, in the Parish of Portland, is perched on a hill overlooking the city’s core, and beyond that, across the St. John River onto the Bay of Fundy. It’s pummeled by coastal wind and rain and sleet. Though worship began in the parish over 250 years ago, the current building has been standing for about 140. It has worn well, and has been called “the Sentinel on Main Street” because of its prominent place in the neighborhood. It lacks the imposing, austere style that we see so much with the gothic revival prevalent in the Diocese of Fredericton. Instead, it stands like a breezy, joyful emblem of the gospel.
The church’s new paint job has been catching the eye of the neighborhood. In many cities, the restoration of heritage buildings is commonplace, and while Saint John has its fair share of historic architecture, the Old North End, which falls within our parish boundaries, has been in steady decline since an initiative at urban redevelopment in 1970s. The once thriving neighborhood has been racked by generational poverty, addiction, and the forces of entropy. As photographer Matthew Sherwood illustrates in his work, “the Old North End never recovered.”
The toll on the human community has been devastating, and I have seen the deep need in our community throughout my ministry here. What I have noticed, interestingly, is that the social and spiritual devastation has left a mark on the landscape. These physical traces of dysfunction are visible in abandoned lots, rotting houses, overgrown weeds, and scattered debris. Many historical homes and spaces, after years of neglect, have found their demise at the end of bulldozer.
To see an historic building like St. Luke’s being restored, then, is not only a boon to our congregation, but a visible sign, a sacramental emblem of hope in the midst of a decaying neighborhood. While there has been some new development — a YMCA here, a McDonald’s there — these spaces are not beautiful or inspiring. It’s true that a McDonald’s can serve as a community hub, but it does not have the grandeur or splendor of church built to house the worship of the living God.
I did not expect painting the exterior of the church would elicit much of response from those who do not worship within its walls. And to be honest, the aesthetics of our building were just about at the bottom of my list of priorities. I was more concerned with the functionality of our space: leaking taps and roofs needing to be fixed. A fresh coat of paint, if necessary, was only to prevent rotting wood, and not to give our neighbors something lovely to gaze upon.
I was wrong. There is has been an outpouring of support from our neighbors, Christian and not. The painters who have worked on St. Luke’s have taken delight in beautifying one of the few remaining landmarks in the Old North End. What’s more, we’ve received, in addition to many comments, several letters throughout the process of restoration from folks who are not members of the parish. Some have offered words of encouragement, along with financial donations. It reminds me of when we worked to get the clocktower working again, and we received a note from a gentleman who had grown up setting his watch to St. Luke’s clock, and wanted to thank us that now he could do so once again.
In cities that are bursting with growth, churches are often waylaid for new condos or the next trendy burrito spot. The swell of urbanization has its casualties, and sacred spaces, because they stand as invitations to rest and reflection, don’t have the same utility in our modern world. Even in rural places, and in many post-industrial cities like Saint John, churches vanish because their congregations no longer have the means to support themselves. Cityscapes that were once dotted with spires pointing to the heavens, are now being refashioned in ways that obscure their Christian pasts. If architecture is on outward sign of some spiritual reality, our cities and towns testify to our shifting loyalties.
In the Old North End, the story of decline is so entrenched, that any flickering of hope for restoration and reanimation is difficult to see. When I walk around the neighborhood, I see boarded-up windows and needles strewn on lawns. Many streets that 40 or 50 years ago would have been bustling with activity are now in a state of disrepair. Where is the light, for children growing up in the midst of a crumbling community? The physical proximity of churches may serve as a beacon of hope, not only because they house the community of the gospel, but because they stand as reminders that beauty matters.
The congregational growth at St. Luke’s in recent years, however modest, has remained largely hidden from our neighbors. While there are three other church buildings within a few hundred meters, two have closed up shop, and one has moved further to the suburbs, though, to their credit, they retain their historic building as a mission outpost. That St. Luke’s remains strong even in the midst of the pandemic is a grace for which we are thankful. That this is now increasingly visible is blessing not only to us, but our neighbors.
Our primary mission remains central. We are called to proclaim the gospel, feed the hungry, and witness to the love of Christ. However, cultivating a culture of preserving the beauty of the past for the sake of the future, this might guide some searching hearts home as well.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.