Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Church rolls may drop, but the buildings don’t always fall to the wrecking ball -- some of them are converted to condos. That trend is the focus of a story in the Washington Post that is at once factual, thoughtful and sensitive.

The smoothly written piece is a massive 1,480 words, yet it reads rather fast. It gives us an overview of the situation across the nation's capital. It offers a few insights on how professionals convert church buildings. And it shows a soothing feel for the concerns of the people who had to leave their sacred spaces.

Church conversions are a kind of gentrification, but with a difference, as the Post points out.

"As churches’ congregations move to the suburbs and D.C. property values soar, increasing numbers of religious institutions are selling their properties in the city, usually with plans to move closer to their congregants," the paper says.  "But … some experts say that a church’s former life as a sacred space requires a particular kind of respect."

The Post gets into the expected issues of restoring a big building with neglected windows, plumbing and HVAC.  It deals also with how to divide up a big room that's built around a pulpit. But it's much more, says writer Amanda Abrams.

A freelance writer who is not a religion specialist, Abrams might have well gotten caught up in those mundane details. But no, she recalls the reason for the buildings -- and so do her sources:

Remembering that a church is more than brick and mortar is crucial when working with religious buildings, said Ben Heimsath, an architect in Austin who specializes in church design and renovations.
"Sadly, I think there are as many examples of what not to do as there are positive reuse projects," Heimsath said. "The most painful examples are the thoughtless or inappropriate use of church symbols or specific worship functions" — like an altarpiece reused as a table or a bar, for example. Ultimately, he said, it comes down to one thing: respect for the building’s former life.

Several kinds of churches get a look in this article, including Baptist, Presbyterian and even Christian Science. It also includes Way of the Cross, although not that it's a Church of Christ. And some of the members, and even the neighbors, may put up vehement objections to flipping a church, as the article says.

But the article takes time to explain.

"After all," it says, "a church is the repository of members’ deep emotions and most important moments, often generations’ worth, and that means deals often are not just strictly business. In some cases, developers partner with church leaders or agree to price a percentage of residential units affordably to align with churches’ missions."

The Post also tells some of the lengths the pros will go to, just to make the sale. One developer says leaders of one church agreed on a price, but asked him to find a new home for them -- a task that took 18 months. He says he not only found a bigger place, but negotiated the sale for the congregation. 

Even the pastor of that church is quoted. He confirms that the developer "had a lot of sensitivity to our specific needs" -- and that the business relationship has since become a friendship. 

To its great credit, the Post even quotes a minister who dislikes the whole idea of converting churches. And he gets to explain why:

Dan Claire, rector of the Capitol Hill-based Church of the Resurrection, has been helping establish neighborhood churches for young Washingtonians around the city but has struggled to find space for the new congregations. He is not a big fan of church-to-condo conversions.
"I think it’s a catastrophic loss," he said. "There are fewer and fewer third spaces in the city. You can go to a pub or a restaurant — you consume and you leave — but there aren’t many places where you can gather."

I admired that angle because it avoids taking sides over the issue. Some newspapers, I think, would have blithely painted church conversions as the wave of the future. 

Wish the Post had added a little background on the Church of the Resurrection, though. It's not an Episcopal parish, as one might think, but a mission of the Anglican Province of Rwanda. That may not hold traction with architects, but I'll bet it would interest the readers.

Another bonus would have been national figures on the number of churches that are undergoing similar gentrification.  However, that may have been outside the story's purview as a local real estate story.

Even with those small flaws, this finely tuned story should help inspire other newspapers to write their own versions. How many churches are being converted in their circulation areas? What are they becoming? How do local church people feel about that? 

None of that would take a degree in religion. Just a little sensitivity and willingness to cover their communities -- and to think outside the bricks.

Thumbnail photo: Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C. Top photo: Way of the Cross Church of Christ, Washington, D.C. Both photos by Farragutful via Wikimedia. Used by permission CC BY-SA 3.0).

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