There’s a controversy brewing in my hometown which I’ve been watching as it deals with issues of local history and historic preservation, as well as a bigger question. What constitutes a church, the building or the people? I don’t attend the church in question, or any church on a regular basis, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But what always strikes me in the places I visit, is that the strongest communities, the older communities that retain their original character and grace, are the ones where older buildings, and particularly churches are kept, rather than pulled down when times get tough.
I’ve been to churches in America that were built in the 1600s, and are still going strong. I’ve been in churches in Europe – not cathedrals mind you but small country churches that have been around for close to a thousand years, and still see services.
Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Carmi, Illinois, built early in the twentieth century is one of the oldest churches in Carmi. Carmi is a small agricultural community, which means declining populations, and for churches, declining attendance
The First Methodist Church on Main street is older, and Emmanuel, started by some people breaking away from a country church, was established on the north side. Originally services were held in German, so there’s history here which will never be replicated anywhere else in town.
The north side never saw the prosperity that much of Carmi found. Not to say that there haven’t been those from across the tracks that did well for themselves, nor that there aren’t poorer neighborhoods in other parts of Carmi. But there is a lot of poverty on the north side, always has been.
Growing up I watched the older generation die off, renters moved in, and If you did well for yourself, it was pretty common to move across the tracks or to a subdivision. As a lot of people will say, the north side just went to Hell. But the neighborhood around the church stayed pretty tame – houses are still kept up, families and the elderly are still in homes they’ve lived in for decades, and much of that can be attributed to having the church on the corner. You still feel like you live in a neighborhood.
It’s an old, beautiful building, full of memories and personal history, but it’s not necessarily a healthy building. There’s a lot of upkeep on the structure and utilities, and some hefty expenditures coming up. Over time, the congregation has grown more grey, like most churches, attracting fewer young people.
So the question becomes, is it time to replace it? No presidents or senators worshipped here, even Carmi’s prominent citizens usually went to the First church if they were Methodists The only people who worshipped here were people’s grandparents and parents. And if it’s time to replace it, why not build it somewhere else in town?
So we’re back to the question … what constitutes a church?
Those who want to move the church to a nicer part of town and build anew like to point out that a church isn’t the building, it’s the people. And this is true.
But what they’re missing is that it’s not just the people who attend the church now, but all who came before as well. For example, you can get married at the same altar where your grandmother got married. You can be baptized in the same church as your great-grandparents. And at your funeral, you can be carried out the same door in your casket as every member of your family who have passed on before.
Granted, these things are sentimental, more important to the spirit than the financials of a church. But is a new church in a nicer part of town in keeping with the spirit of the founding of Emmanuel? I like to believe that somehow a person’s god moves them when they choose a location for a church. As I recall, Jesus told his followers to go among the poor, the meek and among the criminals to build his church. If this is true, then I can see how the choice of locations for Carmi Emmanuel Methodist Church was divinely inspired.
A church should be a part of the community where it stands, seeing the needs and helping to fill them. As a child, growing up in this neighborhood we congregated at the school playground. It’s where you learned to play ball, to spit, cuss, the mysteries of girls and essentially where you learned right and wrong with your peers. Now the playground is fenced off and kids have nowhere to get together. Ideally the church would step in here, and with a couple million of dollars in the bank for a new church, you’d think that maybe, just maybe the current church’s problems could be fixed and some money left over for a community playground? How many times could a church step in and help the poor in their neighborhood with a million bucks to spend?
Because the real mission of a church, as pointed out to me by a former pastor there is to bring new people in. Becoming a part of the neighborhood where you exist is a great way to do this. I always thought the idea was to save new souls, not cannibalize already saved souls from other churches.
Sadly, it’s the older members who are most against moving to a new church across town. Which makes sense, as their history and their family’s history reside in that building. Family memories aren’t transferred along with the name, because the new church will be Carmi Emmanuel Methodist Church in name only. Once discarded, the past is gone forever.
And of course politics are involved. The vote this coming Sunday takes place after the service, on what could be one of the coldest days of the year, and only those who are present are allowed to vote. There are members in retirement homes, currently living in other states or wintering in Florida, all of which have been members of Emmanuel their whole lives. But because they can’t be there, they have no say. Nor can the elderly who simply can’t get out when the temperature is so cold that the air is unsafe for them to breathe.
If they wanted a true vote, they’d have it at Easter, when the church is packed with members, which would also give people a chance to consider the proposal in detail. Or heaven forbid, ask questions. Or even allow mail in ballots. By abandoning the current location, they are in essence saying that the founding of the church on that spot wasn’t divinely inspired. And if it wasn’t, doesn’t that mean that this decision isn’t divinely inspired as well? Or does it mean that church leaders are historically short-sighted?
The measure will likely pass and Emmanuel United Methodist Church of Carmi will be shutting down and moving to a new building in a new subdivision. The elderly will lose their church, a connection to their family history, and the neighborhood will lose one of the things which is supposed to hold it together.
In the end, perhaps what people should consider is the old cliche … what would Jesus do? Would he spend a couple million dollars on a building in a nicer part of town to attract other believers from other churches? Or would he patch the leaks, get a new furnace and spend the rest trying to help the poor, the meek and to save people souls?