Do Burning Churches Matter?

Published April 17, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

On Palm Sunday 1989, my mom and I walked into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for worship. Unfortunately, we did not know that, overnight, the whole city had shifted to daylight savings time, so we were an hour late. Also, neither of us spoke French.

Despite all of that, the story of Jesus’s procession on a donkey through the back door of Jerusalem’s wall, a counterpoint and protest to the Roman governor’s victory parade on a steed through the front, transcends all of the different languages and time zones of Christendom.

After the service concluded, we walked through the gothic marvel alongside tourists from all over the world.

None of that will happen again for a very long time. The fire that started just after Palm Sunday 2019 will close off the space to worship and wonder for possibly decades to come. I cried looking at photos of the damage, and my heart went out to the congregation and their priests, my counterparts.

Where will they gather in this, what we call Holy Week, to mark Jesus’s final meal, his murder and the Easter mystery? And what of the weeks after that and after that? A generation’s worth of worship and service will be lost during the repairs.

Which may have some of you thinking, “So what?” or “Why can’t they just go somewhere else?” Those are valid questions. One of the most salient critiques of Christianity has been we idolize buildings over beloved community.

In the four official accounts of the life of Jesus, he never once spoke of building a new religion, let alone enormous and enormously costly buildings. Jesus did not need a nave, a sacristy or a pulpit to care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, and neither do we.

Except that we do, or at least we do so far.

Consider what caring for “the least of these” requires: time, money, collaboration, education and transformation. Speaking only for affluent and middle-class white Americans, few of us know without being taught that all of humanity, all of creation, are our siblings.

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to recognize that our neighbors are us. So we need spaces that will confront our biases and willful blindness, rooms of people that will hold us accountable to our sacred story. These can keep us from gorging ourselves on the lethal lies of meritocracy and individualism.

And for some Christian Americans, church sanctuaries are truly that: sanctuaries. Black churches have long offered safe harbor from the vagaries and violence of white supremacist America. Which is why white supremacist America keeps burning them down.

As Notre Dame smokes in her rubble, so do three black churches in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. In 10 days, one white man set them on fire. His motivation appeared to be, in part, a critique of Christianity, but it is telling that he did not burn down any white Christian churches and he was recently charged with hate crimes in addition to arson.

Also torched, at the end of March, was Tennessee’s Highland Education and Research Center. While not a church, it has long served as a sanctuary for ministers and lay leaders — including The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks — to learn the art of organizing for justice.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it took the fire at Notre Dame for the St. Landry churches to gain any meaningful national attention or financial support.

As I write this, I am preparing for my church’s own Holy Week services. Our current sanctuary has never burned, to my knowledge, though its foundation and walls were compromised when the city lowered Sixth Street by several feet and we lost the support of all that soil.

Our leadership works on an ongoing basis to assess whether and how we can afford to maintain the old brick building at Sixth Street and Kellogg Avenue. More importantly, we also wonder if we are doing so only out of our pride at being, like Notre Dame, the oldest church in town.

Or, are we maintaining it as a place of reformation for the privileged and sanctuary for the oppressed?

Are we propping up the sagging walls because it gives us room to equip spiritual and practical leaders in the way of Jesus, a man so problematic that the only way to stop the fires he started seemed to be death?

My goal as a Christian pastor is to have so firmly bent the arc of justice that we no longer need retraining facilities for whites and hush arbors for people of color.

In the meantime, I am grateful for the presence of buildings and storefronts that bear physical witness to beauty, transcendence, collaboration, and the holy insistence that rises up from every tomb and ash heap, telling us that we must do better by each other and this planet.

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ in Ames.