Change Is Coming
Workers start early tearing the roof off a nearby house. Walkers and runners politely pass each other on the path around a neighborhood lake. And from my back porch I see a mother wait with her son for the school bus.
Some things are returning to normal, and I feel relief, even as I hear my own critique that there is no returning to normal. I see relief in my neighbors. We pause in the street for conversation. We linger at the check-out to laugh at our food choices. We stay to register our shared humanity.
Yes, some things are returning to normal. And some things have changed for good. Zoom meetings, for instance, will be customary from now on. One of the realizations of these past months is that genuine connection does occur digitally. That's a bit unsettling for those of us who lean Luddite, but it's true. I've experienced profound one-on-one and group conversations via virtual meetings. And I've noticed in recent months that others who value physical presence recognize the staying power of digital community. It's not everything we want, but it is meaningful.
For religious communities, this shift marks a new train of thought. As we affirm digital community, we begin asking questions about the substance of our life together, our relationship with the built and natural environments, and our relationship with neighbors.
Do we need our religious buildings the way we thought we needed them? No, we don't, most of us conclude. And we admit that even before the pandemic, our spaces sat empty most of the week.
Do we have a responsibility to share these spaces with others? Yes, we do, many of us agree. This season has heightened awareness of social inequities. So the purpose of our buildings, which we maintain at high cost, now moves beyond being sanctuary for members to meeting the needs of neighbors.
This new train of thought pushes even further: Do the buildings really belong to us or do they belong to the “moral owners,” to use John and Miriam Carver's term — people in proximity for whom the buildings were originally constructed, or the specific neighborhood in which the buildings were placed for a public mission, or the stakeholders in that public mission who no longer live nearby, or the wider citizenry which grants tax exemption in exchange for charitable service?
This new train of thought surely shakes us. But if we are not yet unsettled, there's bound to be greater rumbling and trembling up ahead. Change is coming. Our old spaces will move one way or another. As the pioneering urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs said, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”
That's why Sympara is working on sacred/civic placemaking, which is the intentional redesign and repurposing of religious spaces for more just, equitable and sustainable communities. As we see faith communities turn from insularity and self-preservation toward an outward journey, our desire is to travel with them. We want to participate in the movement underway. So we embrace another way arising now in traditional spaces and familiar places, for this is change for good.
Daniel Pryfogle is cofounder and CEO of Sympara.