So much time has passed since my last blog post. I should admit to having allowed the quotidien ministerial tasks and responsibilities of being a solo pastor to overtake me, making for less fun time to do things like blogs exploring the spirituality of place. But, I won't.
So I hope it is enough to say, that I am back from outer space and I am looking forward to reconnecting to this hobby of mine, and sharing it with those who might find it interesting.
The other day I had the tremendous opportunity to visit the First Church in Roxbury, a borough of the city of Boston. It is the actual first church, founded by British settlers, most them Puritans in the early 17th century. The first church was a Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist congregation, that lasted until the 1970s, when the church closed for good, and the building was deeded to UU Urban Ministries. Today it serves as a mission to the Roxbury community, offering needed services in that underserved area, such as after-school tutoring, job readiness training and supportive services to survivors of Domestic Violence, among other things.
I think it is beautiful that the church can have a second chapter as a place of respite and empowerment in a challenging urban environment. Of course, I wish it were still a functioning place of worship, that worshiped in way that we UUs worship. But, churches are irrepressibly a cultural thing, and the cultures that would readily connect with the UU experience do not exist in large enough numbers in that community.
I went to the church to collect some old and rare books from the long disused Minister's Study. These books will now live at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton, where we have a thriving congregation, a terrific minister and fabulous music. I have to thank the UU Urban Ministry and Rev. Ken Sawyer, a member of the board, for entrusting these books to me and my congregation.
Since moving to New England I've made a practice of visiting the historic churches, that like my own, live in the center of most of the towns and cities and have played key roles in the histories of those places. I don't know how this practice became my work, but it is and I am passionate about it. Often I take pictures of every aspect of the church building. (they are usually called "meetinghouses" here)
Of all the churches I've visited so far (12 and counting), First Church in Roxbury moved me the most. At times I felt overcome with emotion. It is a place filled with all of the ghosts I don't believe in. My visit felt more like an initiation into some ancient mystery or a portend of the coming apocalypse, its hard to tell which? I'll save the more elaborate description, for the book I have to write about these visits. For now, I hope it is enough to say, that this place is really, really special.
The building is situated on a hill with views of downtown Boston, about 3 miles and a world away. The grounds are surrounded by a big iron fence, and an elaborate gate for entry. The land behind the fence is parklike and its feels sacred, and set apart from its surrounds. I imagine it must seem like an impossible place in a notoriously rough and tumble Roxbury.
The sanctuary is really a place set apart, and it communicates a kind of immortality, expressed in things that age, but somehow never die. I hope you will appreciate this in the pictures of the place. The magic comes through the memorials on the wall, the roughness of the floorboards, the stable decay of the pews and other fixtures.
The absence of people, the monumentality of the space and the way the light pours into the room, even on a cloudy day is also what makes this place so special. While I walked in the sanctuary I felt a sense of kinship with all those who came before me, and I also found myself swept up in their dreams and aspirations for the world, and I was also swept up in what would become their disillusionment.
However, I also felt a sense of sadness, because I know that this place will go on, in some way, as it has, but it is unclear if the traditions of this place and it's people will survive? The sanctuary had a ruinous quality to it. It was like visiting a archeological site that once belonged to a proud race of people now vanished from the face of the Earth. The unexpected collapse of their civilization lent a kind of weightiness to the present. I also had the sense of weightiness in that the future, if we have one, now rests on my shoulders. There I was, to get the ancient scrolls (so to speak) from the temple and to carry them into the future.
I wondered if I am up to the task, and I was convinced that I wasn't, at least not yet. Nevertheless, I hope that I can rise the the occasion and eventually become the person who can carry these traditions forward. I hope that I can also remember that I am not alone in this work.
I am thankful for spaces like these, and thankful to the people who work so hard to keep them going. We need spaces that inspire, desperately; spaces that call us out of the cramped and claustrophobic ordinariness of 21st century life and into the majestic, ever-unfolding mystery of the cosmos.
This place really, really does that!