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The Spiritual Practice of Historical Preservation

Speaker: The Rev. Jake Joseph

July 26, 2020

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The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
The Choice Portion: Historical Preservation as a Spiritual Practice

The Scripture today is from the book of Ezekiel.  The prophet Ezekiel is talking about the renewal and the building of a second temple, a place called the Choice Location.  In the early history of Guilford, we saw sort of a similar conversation happening as they plotted out the land.  Of course, the original meetinghouse and second meetinghouse were on what is now the town Green, and our meetinghouse today, from 1830, was built just north of the Green.  Here we have a sense of the Sacred and Sacred Space.  I want to talk about this today: what space means to us, especially in light of the coronavirus epidemic.

So let me tell you a story from a more familiar time from this past December - a cold night.  The lights were already on the tree on the Green and some of us were in the church preparing for Christmas Eve.  It was one of those perfect Guilford Advent evenings. 

There was a knock on one of the Sanctuary doors.  I opened it and standing out in the cold was a young couple - perhaps college sophomore-age home for the holidays (maybe meeting the in-laws) - “Hello,” he stammered, “Merry Christmas.” His girlfriend just looked cold. He said “I saw that the lights were on and I would like to show my girlfriend this church.  I sang here in high school and attended PF.  Though I’m not a member, I really want her to see it.” We let them in for a few minutes while we finished our work. This place meant something deeply important to that young man.  I mean, if a millennial is willing to knock on a church door and speak with a strange minister to get in, that says something of the importance of this place not just to those of us who are members and staff at First Church, but to the entire wider community.  ! waited patiently for the couple as they made a turn around the box pews.  He was nervous. She was attentive. In that moment, and many subsequent moments especially during this Coronavirus Epidemic of 2020, I have become increasingly aware of First Church’s call to this Sacred Space, and our maintenance of this campus as a ministry of hope and peace and love, not only to our members but to the whole community. This meeting-house is a ministry to Guilford, a partner in ministry to the clergy. The young couple finished their tour. They smiled, he said, “thanks for letting us see my …” and then he corrected himself, “the church.”

I ended up, because of this memory, being the odd person out in a recent Zoom conversation with a cohort of other younger clergy in our 30’s about buildings and the church.  I have been part of this intentional, national group organized by the UCC Pension Boards since 2016.  My colleagues and I get along well, but we don’t always agree. One colleague from the Midwest was describing her congregation’s aging building (the first in their town) as an impediment to the “real” ministry. She said, “I hope the pandemic teaches my congregation that we can finally move to a new space.” I protested. “But the historic space holds space memory. It is a partner of your ministry, not competition.” 

In the UCC, many like to say that “the church is not the building,” and that is theologically accurate and right, but it misses something. We in the UCC, and especially First Church, are the beneficiaries of Sacred Spaces that hold memory. Many clergy colleagues are celebrating this new era of email worship as “the church of the future,” but I worry in this rush to online and “community not buildings,” that my colleagues are missing something important. The church isn’t the building, sure, but the stewardship of Sacred Spaces, the Built and Historic Environment of the Sacred matters for the health and wellness of our members and community.

In a staff meeting this week, Bill Speed wisely called our campus and steeple, a “shining beacon of many years.” In countless conversations with many of you by phone and email over the past months, I have learned the power and importance of our meetinghouse as a well of hope and a beacon of peace.

This past year I was surprised when I asked the Confirmation Class (high school freshmen and sophomores) which committees they most wanted to meet with.  Almost unanimously they were interested in hearing from the Business Committee to learn how we maintain this space.  Even our high schoolers understand this importance of sacred space.  I know how many of you long to be back in the Sanctuary. I want to acknowledge pastorally how important and real that connection is- and we know that won’t be possible for a time yet.  This place is a special part of our ministry even to those who never come inside. 

Unlike my colleague who hope that this time of email and online worship will bring more of the same “after” coronavirus, I am learning something different from this time: historic, sacred, hallowed community spaces matter. We will need meetinghouses on town greens with history and context more than ever to center us.  And we have a gift!  Maybe the UCC can learn to love its heritage of old, maintenance-heavy buildings as a ministry of joy and health rather than a burden? In this time of exile from our sacred spaces, I have learned how much we need them. 

Our Scripture passage is about another people in another time in exile from their sacred space—the choice portion of land set aside for God and worship. While Ezekiel is a problematic prophet in many ways—this book is part of the priestly school of thought and Hebrew Bible materials.  Ezekiel is filled with wild rants, rules, and oracles… but mostly rants.  In this passage Ezekiel pining for a sacred space—a new temple—a place set aside for renewal and worship. A prophet in forced Babylonian Exile, Ezekiel was written after the destruction of the first temple (meetinghouse) in Jerusalem.  There is an “awayness”, separation—a time of confusion, uncertainty, unknown, isolation, and pain. Does any of that sound familiar right now?

Dr. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Harrel F. Beck Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston University, is the foremost expert on Ezekiel. She says we need to pay attention to these passages that are difficult because they have important questions to ask us.  She wrote, “Their suffering and anxiety should not be minimized…not only had they been thrust into an alien environment, leaving behind family, friends, and possessions, [places of worship] but also they lived with uncertainty about their own futures and the fate of their homeland. Frightened and desperate for divine guidance, the exiles sought a reassuring word …. One cannot help but read it without being struck by Ezekiel’s utter determination in the face of hostile defiance, despondency, and—worst of all—apathy.”[1] 

Exile from friends and family, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, defiance, despondency, and growing apathy are all familiar to us in these months since we stopped worshipping in person. I know many of you, and the staff too, - we are all weary of the online video worship. We hear you and understand, and we know that our meetinghouse- this place- misses us too!

I love, though, that one of the comforts that Ezekiel offers, as Ginger read, is literally the design specifications for the new temple – a return to sacred space, a familiar meetinghouse. By preaching this oracle about the specs for the sacred space, Ezekiel taps into hope and, something that modern historical preservationists and city planners are studying as an emergent theory, mental health.  Longing for our historic place isn’t new, it is familiar to us in these times as well. 

I think the UCC is a little errant when it says that the church and the building are unrelated.  Some colleagues like to daydream about a church without walls or pews… but I think we miss the nuance of the buildings.  In the UCC we have a denomination with a wonderful resource of some of the oldest buildings of any tradition on the continent.  These places offer healing, hope, and mental health. We are the inheritors of symbols that rise above the tree lines around the community.  Let’s own that unique architectural role – as like Ezekiel did - and create symbols that give us reassurance that we can go back when it is safe again. 

There is emerging data which I want to share because I think it is really exciting.  It points to the fact that the maintenance, care, and so much heart we put into into the space here at 110 Broad Street – is actually a community spiritual practice.  We are engaging in a spiritual practice for mental health and wholeness here in Guilford and on the shoreline.  It isn’t your imagination that our building and these buildings around the Green are good for you and life-giving. It is science! 

Dr. Jeremy Wells, Assistant Professor of the Historic Preservation Program at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, wrote an article, “Sanity and Urbanity: Spontaneous Fantasy and the Relationship Between Urban Historic Environments and Mental Health.” He wrote, “Since the 1970s, environmental design and behavior researchers have looked into the relationship between the design of places and their impact on people’s health. This emphasis is on evidence-based design”, or the use of social science research to understand the person-place relationship.  The studies that do exist offer a tantalizing glimpse at the possibility that historic places have additional, bona fide, positive effects on health, centering on overall mental health, such as creativity/imagination and wellbeing, and physical health.

He notes that even when there are two urban residential neighborhoods with essentially the same urban design, people who live in the authentically old place (i.e., with the patina) have higher levels of place attachment, which is related to people’s mental health to create well-being.  Built heritage, that is built environments, provides a kind of “ontological security” for people. In other words, the familiar, known, and stable qualities of heritage environments provide understandable psychological cues that lead to improved mental health.”[2] 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) affirms Jeremy Well’s research in their 2017 article, “Introduction to Health and Historic Preservation.”[3] It states “We’re only at the beginning stages of understanding the role that old places play in health, but it seems to me that doing so will help us shape our work in preservation to support people’s health and foster human flourishing… keeping and reusing old places gives people a sense of continuity and identity that is emotionally and psychologically beneficial and grounding.”

It turns out that congregations like First Church that are holding onto old spaces and caring out of a sense of duty or love, were intuiting what mental health experts and city planners are just beginning to note: that it is a spiritual practice for the whole community to love and cherish these physical spaces, and to miss them.  In the UCC we don’t like to have dogma, but I sometimes feel like the attitude towards our historic spaces is a deficit-based mantra and a dogma. The UCC’s “the church isn’t the building” might need some softening and rethinking based on the modern research that historic spaces might be our spiritual legacy for wellness for us and the wider communities. Likewise, the Biblical tradition of Ezekiel says that longing for those spaces is a form of hope-cultivation in times of exile. Missing church, missing this place is not only okay, it is theologically sound and scientifically real.

I want to remember Jane Jacobs as I close.  After the destruction of Penn Station in NY, she wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities that helped save Greenwich Village and found the historical preservation movement.  Jane Jacobs was a brilliant hero, even though she fought Robert Moses- it was a complicated time in NY history – but she wrote a book that changed the course of how we understand places like Guilford.  She wrote, “Under the seeming disorder of the old city [the old creaky church buildings], wherever the place is working successfully, it is a marvelous order for maintaining … the freedom of the city. It is a complex order…. The ballet of the good city sidewalks never repeats itself from place to place [like our building over there], and in any once place it is always replete with new improvisations.” 

Friends, we are in a time of new improvisations in the church.  As Jane Jacobs pointed out in her great book about the reason for historical preservation, it is because these spaces help us to improvise in the complexity, and the needs, and the spiritual awakening of our time.  The remarks about the sacredness of place for passersby as you sit on the steps at First Church are powerful and real. We are in a moment like the people of Ezekiel’s time– we are searching for hope and looking for the sacred.

I believe, while some of the elements of video worship may endure, that we will always need our sacred spaces.  And that by honoring them and embracing the fact that they help provide us with spiritual nutrition, we may also be “replete with new improvisations” of the holy.

I pray you have a beautiful day.  I hope you know that it’s no only okay to miss the church buildings, miss the gatherings that happen, but, moreover, science now says that these spaces are catalysts for mental health and wholeness.  Amen.

[1] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “Ezekiel,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, edits. (

[2] https://www.urbandesignmentalhealth.com/blog/spontaneous-fantasy-the-relationship-between-urban-historic-environments-and-mental-health

[3] http://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/tom-mayes/2017/08/08/pastforward-reading-list-introduction-to-health-and-historic-preservation

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