A church undergoes structural change

scaffolding in a church

Photo © Sanya Kushak/iStock/Getty

The sledgehammer knocking down the walls outside the office destroys my plans for the morning. Fortunately, it stops. Then the jackhammers double. Such is life in a construction zone.

In the 1950s, a pastor built a projection booth in the basement of our church, optimistically called “the basement.” Decades later, the stand has become a pantry. Now the structure is being demolished to make way for new accessible bathrooms while our old bathrooms become an expanded pantry.

The entire basement is being renovated. Downstairs comes a step to create more space for shelter beds, along with new windows, doors, floors, and a sprinkler system. It looked amazing on paper, but the architectural plans say nothing about workers breaking a city water main or three months of work stretched to nine months of chaos in a building that must keep running. , providing shelter for young homosexuals who are again displaced, having to go upstairs to the sanctuary during construction. Dust rises like poisonous incense filling the air of the sanctuary.

Every book in my office is covered in dust. The sand on my desk and the plants make me think of my lungs, mine and those of others who breathe here, day and night. Do the face masks hoarded for COVID match that mix of drywall dust, metal shavings, and whatever else is now detached from century-old concrete? Humans aren’t the only disturbed and displaced creatures. What was the plan for the newly homeless mice and rats shaken from their secret burrows?

Digging and demolition reminds me of a day in Capernaum. We have the story in Mark and Luke. So many people show up to see Jesus that there is only standing room in the synagogue. Then our attention is drawn to the fate of a paralyzed man. His friends “couldn’t find a way to get him to come because of the crowds”. These days, most of us would like to see such a crowd gathered around Jesus, but the way this crowd has positioned itself is blocking the way of others. From their point of view, everything is fine! They enjoy the warmth of Jesus’ care and their own fellowship, but they turn their backs on the crippled man and his friends.

If the four friends of the paralyzed looked at the numbers prohibiting access and left, the story would end there. But these friends do something unexpected: “they removed the roof above him, and after having dug it, they dropped the mat on which the paralytic was lying”. Friends engage in building modifications. Demolition. Noise. Dust.

What does the crowd think of this structural change? We are not told, but we can guess. It’s uncomfortable, disruptive and costly. Destruction of property! And who will clean up?

But this is all part of the structural change. What structures in our churches need to change in order to become open to those beyond the current line of sight of our ministry? A change in physical structures? A change in decision-making structures? A change in cultural structures? All the foregoing?

As I write this, my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is about to meet for a national assembly. There are friends trying to dig through the roof to make a way for those who have been left behind. Multiple “replenishment resolutions” are proposed. They call for a new constitution to help the ELCA “quickly reorganize to meet the changing realities of effective mission in today’s world” and “to atone for and redress the ways in which the ELCA has been complicit in trauma and harm, as well as to actively dismantle racism in our systems.And the ELCA is not the only denomination facing such structural injustices.

Faced with this, I rethought the identity of the paralyzed man. Perhaps the man lying on his mat is our denominational body, or yours, and before that body can rise and walk, there must be laments for sin, repentance, and structural change. Friends of the church, hopefully more than four, bravely dig down to demolish and dismantle the ceiling of possibility. Dust flies. The Gospel crowd has no choice in the matter, but our congregations do. We can use our current structures to resist. I saw Robert’s rules of procedure weaponized to flood the floor with points of order so that voices calling for racism were tempered and silenced. And there are always financial constraints.

It is telling that the place of demolition in Capernaum is the roof, a site often referred to in prophetic texts as the place of idolatry. (“The Chaldeans who fight against this city shall come and set it on fire and burn it”, says Jeremiah 32:29, “with the houses on the roofs of which offerings were made to Baal and drink offerings were poured out to other gods, to provoke me to anger.”)

Because of our own idolatry on the housetops, the ceiling of what we will tolerate, some of our prophets say that everything will burn up. And they may be right. It may be too late to make structural changes to a rotten structure. I cannot predict what we will see in a month or two when the dust settles from our next assembly, let alone in the years to come.

In my little corner of the church, we considered a complete teardown and new construction, but zoning issues made it unfeasible. It was essential to maintain a space for those who did not have a safe space, although it is unclear how we will pay for all of this.

Ariyana is a transgender woman from south of the border who lived through the upheaval of our basement. It was nothing compared to what she went through at the hands of her family and, more recently, Rikers guards. But after long days at work followed by working on his trial with the pro bono legal team we work with, the return to dust and disruption only added to his stress.

Then came the big reveal. Whether you call it basement, basement, hideaway or sanctuary, it’s now bright and inviting with gleaming bathrooms, new flooring in place of pockmarked concrete and the columns supporting the church painted in precious rainbow hues.

The look on Ariyana’s face was worth it. I imagine it reflected the joy that day in Capernaum when everyone was amazed, saying, “We have seen incredible things today. To me, this is a mini-vision of unseen possibilities for the church. If we are ready to pick up the masses.

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