Column: Save church as gift to future

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

More than 100,000 churches and parishes across North America have closed their doors over the past decade. Entire denominations have disappeared or have had to merge to survive.

Despite being part of the Bible belt, Saskatoon, too, has been affected by the cultural shift away from Christianity, and we see in the decline the eventual closure of Third Avenue United Church.

The church been a part of the fabric of Saskatoon for almost a century. Its English Gothic architecture has been acclaimed since it was built. At the time, University of Saskatchewan president Walter Murray called the new building, “The first permanent home of religion in Saskatoon.”

Most churches have a life cycle. They are started, grow, mature and then die. With populations shifting to the suburbs, the lack of parking and the changing role of faith in our communities, many churches in downtown areas are struggling to survive.

There are very few examples of a local church being vibrant on its centennial, because many don’t make it that long. In most cases, tears are shed, stories told and the church is closed and sold. That money is invested in new churches and in projects the denomination see as desirable.

That is the path taken by the River Bend Presbytery. Selling the Third Avenue Church will give it the money to invest elsewhere.

The problem is that the loss of the downtown church would be a net loss to Saskatoon. This isn’t just another building. The Third Avenue United Church has legendary acoustical properties and rivals theatres across Canada as a great performance space.

Its capacity fills a niche in Saskatoon as it is larger than the Broadway and Roxy theatres, while at 1,100 seats, it’s smaller than TCU Place. It adds to the city without competing with other performance spaces.

The Third Avenue Centre, a non-profit group that wants to turn the church into a performing arts centre, has made a proposal to the congregation and the presbytery.

The congregation approved the proposal, but the presbytery disagreed and instructed church officials to send it back on to the market for other bids.

As other cities have taught us, when such facilities hit the open market, they can be lost to the community forever. Some communities have learned the lesson and are converting similar buildings to concert halls and performance spaces because of the value they offer a city.

The market for old cathedrals is traditionally soft.

Organizations can buy and convert them for far less than building a replacement.

Once the Third Avenue church is lost, we will never be able to replace it. There is a reason we don’t build facilities like it anymore: It’s too expensive. Its stonework alone would cost approximately $39 million to replace.

Councillor Darren Hill told The StarPhoenix, “I don’t think it’s the city’s position to get involved in the decision making of the presbytery. That is not our role. But if there is the opportunity to strengthen a bid or a proposal to protect the integrity of the church as a performing arts centre, that’s where we need to come in.”

While Hill is calling on the city to intervene, an even better solution would be for Saskatoon’s corporate and philanthropic community to step up and invest in the next century of performing arts in Saskatoon. It would be a timeless investment in both the arts and in Saskatoon as a whole.

Looking at similar and older cathedrals across Eastern Canada, the United States and Europe, there are countless generations of use left in the Third Avenue building if we are willing to invest in it before it is too late.

Saskatoon would not be alone in doing this. Several cities across Canada have stepped in to transform old churches into performance spaces. Some have allowed the congregation to continue to meet in the space – a solution that would work well here.

As builders and trustees of Third Avenue United Church for a century, it makes sense to give congregation members a home as it moves into its next phase of life as a building.

The congregation got us this far. Now it’s up to us as a city to step up and figure out what’s next. We had the vision to add a world-class art gallery downtown.

Now we need to figure out where a world-class concert hall fits in. This opportunity presents itself only once and, if we seize it, the result will be enjoyed by generations to come.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

What does the name Francis mean for the modern church

It appears to be a good first step

So why Bergoglio? He is a first-generation Argentinian, of Italian descent, who has been in Italy and involved in the governance of the Church for many years. He must have excellent relations with his fellow cardinals. He can simultaneously serve as a symbol for Catholicism in the global south and assuage any concerns of the Italian cardinals that they are losing control over the papacy with a third consecutive non-Italian pope. He is relatively old, but now that Benedict has set an example of voluntary retirement, Pope Francis can choose to follow his predecessor’s path as needed. Whatever one thinks of Benedict’s reign as Pope, part of his legacy will be that he enabled his successors to resign without drama.

Second, the choice of name reveals much about a new pope’s state of mind as he steps out onto the balcony to address the world as pontifex. He chose his name, his spokesman revealed, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the great saints in Catholic history. Francis was the son of a cloth merchant who became a kind of living saint during his lifetime. He preached and practiced radical poverty, founded a new way of living a life in the church, embraced the presence of God in all living things, and left behind a vibrant (if sometimes divided) order named after him. These friars of St. Francis took vows and lived by a set of rules that Francis drew up, but were supposed to travel and preach to all. Cardinal Bergoglio embodied a kind of exemplary simplicity in his own life, riding the bus instead of in a limousine, living in a simple apartment instead of a palace, and cooking for himself. While this is a far cry from Francis’ poverty, Bergoglio never lived as a grand prince of the Church. A pope named after St. Francis of Assisi might well focus on questions of social justice, poverty, and personal piety, as well as environmental justice.

But Bergoglio is a Jesuit, and one of the two most important saints in Jesuit history was also named Francis. St. Francis Xavier was a missionary and evangelist. He personally travelled to South and East Asia and died in 1552 just off the coast of China. By taking the same name as Francis Xavier, the epitome of the Catholic global evangelist, the new pope suggests he is ready to push the Vatican from a Eurocentric to a global position.

It is impossible to think that a Jesuit, now Pope Francis, wasn’t thinking of his famous predecessor in the Jesuit Order when he chose his name. Catholic theology embraces the idea that multiple, even contradictory, principles can co-exist within the same object. Jesus can be both God and Man. The Host can be both body and bread. Pope Francis can draw inspiration from both Saints Francis as he enters this new phase of his life. Perhaps even more importantly, he can nod to his Jesuit tradition, while taking as his inspiration both the universality and the message of reform from St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a savvy and meaningful decision.

Cornell West vs. The White House

From the New York Times describing an exchange with Valerie Jarret and theologian Cornell West

Ms. Jarrett was similarly “livid,” one former White House official said, with members of the Congressional Black Caucus who accused the president of paying insufficient attention to the particular economic woes of blacks. When the writer and academic Cornel West joined in, calling Mr. Obama the “black mascot of Wall Street,” Ms. Jarrett’s response was “ruthless,” Dr. West said.

He recalled a phone call in which she dismissed his criticism as sour grapes for not receiving a ticket to the inauguration, and said he later heard from friends that she was putting out the word that “one, I was crazy, and two, I was un-American.”

“It was a matter of letting me know that I was, in her view, way out of line and that I needed to get in line,” he said in an interview. “I conveyed to her: ‘I’m not that kind of Negro. I’m a Jesus-loving black man who tells the truth, in the White House, in the crack house or in any other house.’ She got real quiet. It was clear that she was not used to being spoken to that way.”

Actually West said Barack Obama is a, “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”  While I don’t agree with what he said, I do appreciate someone who can tell off someone in power and then stand by it.

Standing in the gap

I don’t know how you respond to that tweet.  Mark is a court worker in Edmonton and posts things like this all of the time.  Most of them are heartbreaking and they happen in all cities, not just Edmonton.  The solution to many of the issues is money.  Money so that a 17 year old mom and 3 week old baby don’t have to sleep in a ravine.   Money for bug spray, money for food, money for clothes.  Where does that money come from?  In an ideal Canadian world, the government would provide it.  In reality they don’t. 

I have long wonder why 25-30 churches can’t come together and donate $1000 each annually for a fund that is administrated by them for purposes like this.  Allow workers like Mark to access a part of it 24 hours a day (emergencies don’t always happen during office hours), provide financial accountability, and report back to the churches on how the money was spent.  It wouldn’t be that hard to do and it would allow churches to stand in the gap when everything else fails.    $25,000 a year to spend on situations where there is no other support would make a massive difference.  It would be hard to say no to some of the requests and you would need both strong and flexible boundaries but if done right, it could make an incredible difference for both the recipients and the funding groups.