This Sunday, I felt – and cried – as if I was losing a family member. But it wasn’t a person Chris and I are losing – it’s a community. A community that has inspired thought and action, provided comfort even when they didn’t know it, and loved us and Sprout so very much. We’re in the process of losing our church.
Our church started in 1938 as Bethesda First Baptist, part of the American Baptists, who are much more liberal than the Southern variety. About eight years ago, the congregation decided to relaunch, complete with a new pastor and focus. About a year later, with the congregation down to a handful of people, they brought in our current pastor, Todd. Under Todd’s leadership, the church became “multi-denominational,” embracing Christian traditions from a variety of times and places. From discussions of the saints to contemporary worship songs, the church embodied a unique mix of theology and ritual.
Chris and I came into this story long before we even knew about the church itself. After experiencing spiritual community in college and volunteering at Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (HOME) in Maine, I knew I wanted a church that deeply connected people together. While evangelical churches had previously been my go-to, I abandoned that branch as unfruitful after Chris found only disrespect for being Catholic. Not long after, I read Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, which is about finding wisdom and depth in a broad array of Christian traditions. After we finally decided to get married in a Catholic church, I told the priest that I wanted a church that combined a strong sense of community with the theological diversity. In response, he not unkindly laughed and said, “Shannon, you’re simply not going to find that.”
And yet, we found exactly what I was looking for in the Church in Bethesda. The longer we were there, the more both we and the church matured. I led theological discussions and attended studies on ancient spiritual practices. Chris and I joined the leadership team, called the Servant’s Group, where we discussed the church’s vision and struggled with budget issues.
As part of the leadership, we realized that our community’s main strength was our focus on radical welcome. Our valuing of theological diversity expanded to include diversity of socio-economic levels, race, and sexual orientation. Beyond simple acceptance, we started emphasizing peacemaking, social justice, and reconciliation with groups often left out of Christian hegemony. We took pride in welcoming everyone without strings attached, from a Muslim family who stopped by to a Jewish woman who never comes to service but always shows up afterwards for snacks.
But just as it felt like we as a church had found our purpose – a very needed purpose – everything was falling apart.
All at once, we had a huge departure of young families. The year Sprout was born, there were 9 other kids born; now none of their families attend our church. While most were military – we have a large medical military school nearby – others couldn’t afford to raise a family in the D.C. area. At the same time, we didn’t have a new influx of people to replace them. Where we regularly had 70 people on Sunday mornings, we had dropped down to 40 on the very best of days.
To pile on the problems, our building was literally falling apart. While we always had problems, the first real emergency was the belltower shedding stones during the 2011 D.C. earthquake. After that, we had a major new repair every few months. The culmination was our boiler completely breaking down and flooding the entire basement last winter. When the repair crew drained the water, they found a natural gas leak. Then a water leak in a previously-frozen pipe and another and another. We didn’t have heat in our sanctuary for the entire winter. (Fortunately, we could meet in a smaller room.) While insurance covered the boiler, the building has continued to disintegrate. Only a couple of weeks ago, the radiator in the front hallway broke, leaving a huge puddle on the carpet in the back of the sanctuary.
Between the loss of members and the continuing bills, we simply couldn’t keep up financially. Our pastor took on a second job as a customer service person for the local Apple store. Members of the leadership group took over maintenance tasks, like mowing the lawn.
I stepped up by doing what I do best – communications. We organized events, increased our social media, improved our website, posted online ads. Our Easter Egg hunt attracted many more families than anticipated, nearly overwhelming our resources. But even though we made sure every kid walked away with a special treat, none of the families returned. The Earth Day event was even more of a bust, with no one outside of the volunteers showing up to hear the speaker from Interfaith Power and Light.
Each Sunday morning, I sat in the back with Sprout playing on the floor and counted the number of people. There were never more, never enough. Even though I had done the best I could, it felt like failure.
What finally brought everything to a head was the decision from our pastor to leave at the end of this year. I can’t blame him – while it was exhausting for the leadership group, it was far worse for him. He was spending too much time just trying to keep the church above water with little time for his spiritual / vocational development and no financial stability. As his friend, I completely understood.
But as a parishioner, I was angry and frustrated. Not at him personally, but the entire situation. We don’t have enough money to keep up our failing building. We don’t have enough money to pay a new pastor. We don’t have enough volunteer time or energy to run a regular service. More than half of the Servants’ Group were too burnt out to start from scratch. The future was a big blank.
So at last week’s congregational meeting, we took the first step in figuring out what to do come January – we gave up control of our building.
While it wasn’t the end-all, be-all, it felt like the first step towards complete dissolution. We had put so much in for what felt like so little. I had envisioned bringing my son up in this community and that simply couldn’t happen now.
Which is why I was sobbing in the pews. All of the community, all of the values that we stood for are needed, now as much as ever. They’re needed in a world with terror, hunger, racism, and violence. We as a society and individuals need to hear and embrace them.
But maybe, our society doesn’t need those values wrapped up in a traditional church structure. Maybe they’re needed in service, art, music, and something completely different from what’s come before. Maybe we can rebuild.
But for now, I’m still sad for the fact that what the future holds will never be the same as the past. I’m still in mourning for what had been and uncertain of what is to come. I already miss my faith family.