This is our weekly round-up of news and media relevant to Bricks & Mortals’s mission.
This newsletter will take a hiatus the rest of August and will return in September. This week, instead of our normal content headers and the news of the last week, we’ll take a look at some of the overarching themes from the past few months. This final dispatch of the summer is organized into a series of four themes – which provide insight into the questions faith-based organizations are thinking through about their relationship to real property.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the early months when COVID-19 restrictions caused many houses of worship to close their physical doors, many houses of worship pivoted to meeting and gathering online.
For some congregations and communities, online worship proved a real benefit – drawing more attendees, often from further away. (An article from early in the pandemic highlighted individuals who would spend their Sundays attending numerous Quaker meetings on Zoom, rolling through the time zones.) Online services also allowed former attendees, who were now physically unable to attend services due to disability or illness, a vital lifeline to maintain connections with their faith community. At the Council of American Jewish Museums 2021 conference, scholar Julia Watts-Belser, who uses a wheelchair, spoke of the first year of the pandemic as the year where she could “do everything,” as many programs, that would have been held in inaccessible in-person spaces pre-pandemic, were now held online. Some worship leaders have also embraced the wide palette of tools available on digital platforms, developing elaborate virtual reality set-ups for online worship.
Not all online programming went well: early on in the shift to virtual worship, “Zoom bombers” occasionally accosted worshippers with pornographic and/or violent images. As administrators became more familiar with security settings and would-be “Zoom bombers” lost interest in causing this particular form of digital chaos, these incidents became less prevalent.
There is concern amongst some religious leaders that the continuation of digital programming is preventing a full-scale return to in-person worship. In January 2022, Rev. Tish Harrison Warren wrote a controversial op-ed in the New York Times, calling on faith leaders to drop online services altogether, highlighting the importance of “embodied community.” For many, gathering in person is key to both a worship experience, and for providing the vital ministries – like food distribution, addiction recovery services, and childcare – that many people in their communities rely on.
Blaming online services for declining in-person attendance numbers may not be entirely accurate, at least for younger worshippers. Online worship activities may actually enhance in-person participation; in a recent study of Christian millenials, 95% of those who reported participating in digital worship or religion-centric activities also reported practicing their spirituality in person as well.
Throughout the United States, many houses of worship are renewing their commitment to serve their communities. Houses of worship have long been important service providers: doing sometimes undersung work addressing food insecurity and healthcare, just to name a few issues. In the face of natural disasters, houses of worship often provide emergency preparedness kits, and in their aftermath often serve as crucial sites of distribution. (Faith-based organizations were a key part of Occupy Sandy’s post-hurricane infrastructure to distribute food, clothing, and other necessities to people whose homes were devastated by the 2012 hurricane.
While this mission-oriented work has long been a part of faith-based organizations’ operations, many houses of worship have expanded their commitment to reach out to and work with their wider community. The Presbyterian Church USA launched the Matthew 25 program in 2016, which calls on churches to simultaneously build congregational vitality and address structural racism and poverty in their communities. Other congregations have embraced Bricks & Mortals founder Donna Schaper’s call to “remove the pews,” and welcome in artists and activist groups to share their space. As some religious communities see declining membership, attendance, and tithes, there is hope that by reorienting themselves to welcome a broader community, they may find a sustainable path forward.
At the same time that many houses of worship seek to open their doors and embrace their community, many houses of worship are also facing the threat of violence. Mass shootings are prevalent throughout the United States, in all sorts of communities. Rural, urban, white communities, communities of color, red states, blue states: the uniquely American phenomenon of mass shootings may impact nearly any community. Just this year, there have been numerous deadly shootings at houses of worship: at a church potluck in Alabama, at a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California, in the parking lot of an Ames, Iowa, church, to name just a few. This year has also seen a hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue, a spree of vandalism at Oregon mosques and synagogues, and a stated threat towards San Antonio synagogues that shut down services for a weekend. As sites where communities gather, the threat of violence is felt deeply by many houses of worship – and even more so for non-Christian and immigrant communities who may also find themselves the target of hate crimes.
As a sensible response to this threat, many houses of worship have sought to make safety and security improvements to their buildings. Various grant programs, including from the federal government, exist to help faith-based organizations and other non-profits improve their CCTV systems, install more secure doors, or make other adjustments. Active shooting training sessions have also become prevalent in faith communities. Washington, D.C.’s local government recently offered an active shooter training session for faith leaders and nightlife workers. Members of the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where an attacker took four people hostage for eleven hours, credit active shooter training with being able to eventually disarm the attacker and escape to safety.
But, even as many houses of worship pursue enhanced safety measures, they seek to balance these with community-building activities. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was the rabbi at the Colleyville synagogue, recently was profiled in Religion News Service, discussed this balancing act of building a community faith while also maintaining the safety of those gathered there.
This theme of how houses of worship relate to the historic nature of their properties, and landmarking in particular, will be familiar to many Bricks and Mortals members. In New York City, West Park Presbyterian Church has applied for a hardship exemption to un-landmark their building so that they may pursue development on the property. The church and the Presbytery argue that they do not have the funds to maintain the building. (They have said they need around $50 million.) Community members on the Upper West Side have differing opinions on this, with some agreeing that there is no feasible solution to keep the building maintained, and others steadfastly defending the historic character of their neighborhood and unique architectural value of the building.
Landmarking debates at houses of worship are not exclusive to New York City, though they do tend to become more fraught and heated in real estate markets with greater development pressure. Landmarking can be used as a tool to oppose the redevelopment of a faith property, especially in cases where developers seek to build apartment buildings or high-density housing. In Chicago, community members are seeking to landmark the Epworth Memorial Church, after developers reneged on their promise to keep the building, which they purchased, intact. In this case, landmarking the building may allow some of the community-oriented uses, including services for the homeless, to continue on.
Landmarking can be contentious even within congregations. In San Jose, some congregants at the Grace Baptist Church are seeking landmark status for the building they worship in – a nearly 100-year-old structure that houses the city’s sole remaining organ from the Silent Movie era. The church’s pastor, as well as other congregants, oppose landmarking the building as it will foreclose most future opportunities to redevelop the property, potentially making the church less able to adapt to changing circumstances.
Landmarking a building is no guarantee that it will protect the communities that worship there. In historically Black neighborhoods, gentrification is pushing many Black and working-class residents out of their homes, and as a result, many of the houses of worship that served these communities are closing. (An article by the Brookings Institute highlights the public health consequences of these closures.) For example, in 2018, the Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ, which served a primarily Black congregation in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, closed its doors, largely due to gentrification-related pressures. The site was landmarked in the mid-1990’s due to its architectural significance, but also its importance as a heritage marker for D.C.’s African-American community. While landmarking has been successful in preserving the building’s historic structure, landmarking was not able to preserve the social institution and body of the church. Are houses of worship important because of their exterior structures, or because of the communities that gather there? In the face of the pressures of gentrification, public policies – like rent stabilization, broadly available affordable housing, and livable wages – are necessary in order to keep communities in place.
This theme – of how to preserve communities – is not exclusive to houses of worship. For example, members of the queer community have debated how best to maintain community spaces like gay bars and nightclubs, especially as many longtime “gayborhoods” see their queer residents move away as rents rise; in May, I wrote about this debate for New York Review of Architecture’s SKYLINE newsletter.
Many housing debates in the United States hinge on the tension between NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) and YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard). NIMBYs oppose new construction, advocating for retaining the existing “character” of their neighborhood. YIMBYs, on the other hand, embrace new construction, particularly development of new housing units to combat the shortage, advocating for denser neighborhoods to address the housing crisis.
Of course, as with any binary categorization, the NIMBY-YIMBY divide falls apart under scrutiny.
In fall 2021, scholar Kian Goh tweeted that this is a “barren framing.” Many YIMBYs promote unfettered market-rate construction, which is not necessarily effective in creating affordable housing for those that need it, and oppose affordability provisions like mandatory inclusionary zoning or rent control. Jersey City embraced construction of luxury apartment buildings, and has now won the distinction of being the most expensive city for renters in the United States.
While pro-development advocates often proudly label themselves as YIMBYs, the term “NIMBY” is more often used pejoratively, applied to those opposed to development. However, the label NIMBY has been applied to groups who are actually fighting for housing justice and against gentrification in their neighborhoods as well.
NIMBY-driven opposition to housing construction, especially when it comes to affordable housing, is contributing to the United States’s massive housing crisis. But YIMBYs’ embrace of market-rate development is not necessarily better for working-class communities: new market-rate construction may cause the displacement of working-class residents, even when no existing homes are demolished.
In the end, the YIMBY and NIMBY debate often obscures the real need: for affordable and supportive housing to be constructed, and for protections to keep tenants in their homes. Relying solely on market-rate development or capitulating to the financial interests of homeowners that fear changes to their “neighborhood character” will not address the urgent need for stable, affordable housing for all Americans.
Today is my last day working as a project manager with Bricks & Mortals and the Partnership for Faith-Based Affordable Housing and Community Development. I am departing to become the managing editor at Urban Omnibus, starting next week. I’ve really enjoyed my time working with Bricks & Mortals and The Partnership. Thank you for reading this weekly newsletter over the past few months; it’s been a true pleasure writing it.
We’ll see you in September.