Last Sunday afternoon I was walking with Don Hill to lunch after church. Don is the outstanding consultant our congregation is working with as we listen for God’s call for our future. We are a vibrant and energized congregation. We are also in the midst of change, and so we are using this opportunity to look deep within ourselves, and to look to God as we look ahead.
The route Don and I were taking toward our chosen lunch spot passed the construction site where University Christian Church is being dismantled. As we came up to the half-demolished sanctuary, Don stopped and stared. “Tell me about this,” he said.
What could I say? It is hard to watch an old friend fall. For the last two months, I have been driving by almost every day as a crew of workers has been taking that building down, piece by piece. Folks in my congregation have commented on how sad this feels. Some have said they are avoiding that corner just so they don’t have to watch. And others in the U district and throughout the city are recognizing their own feelings of loss. Believers, seekers, and doubters all seem to recognize our need for places of Spirit.
University Christian Church was established in 1890 and moved into that building on 15th and 50th in 1928. That means they began just a few years after our church started up in the same neighborhood, then called Brooklyn. We have been “just down the road” neighbors since 1950, when our congregation moved to 16th and 45th. Like all the U district churches, U Christian flourished in their growing Seattle neighborhood, and had a high mark of vitality and vibrancy in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Our connection with the folks at University Christian has been a rich one. In my eighteen years at our church, I have witnessed it first hand. When our facility was undergoing a major renovation about fifteen years ago, University Christian opened their doors to us. We worshipped together in their sanctuary all summer, and the staff had offices on the second floor of that building. Our stability during that time and our renovated building now are a part of U Christian’s legacy.
In 2008 we partnered with U Christian in homelessness action. We kind of stumbled into that partnership. They were courageously hosting the then-brand-new homeless encampment known as Nickelsville, at a time when such hosting meant defying the city and risking hefty fines. When they could not continue, they asked for our help. SO Nickelsville moved into our parking lot, just in time for Christmas and record snows. The city’s acceptance of church hosting for homeless encampments and our ongoing use of Lot C for such work are also a part of U Christian’s legacy.
And of course our church now has folks from U Christian who have joined us and now shape who we are. That is true of other congregations in Seattle as well, and that too is U Christian’s legacy.
In 2016 U Christian sold the property across the street from their sanctuary for the construction of low income housing so desperately needed in our neighborhood. Then, in 2018, no longer able to support their aging facility, they sold the land the sanctuary was on. The congregation merged with Lake City Christian Church to become Journey Christian Church. What a perfect name. With the proceeds of the sale they will provide support for this new congregation. In addition, they have established a foundation, with the intention to continue the work U Christian has always pursued: “. . . to further the work of peace and justice in our community.”
Every spiritual community has a life span. I realized that when I visited the ruins of faith communities throughout Great Britain in 2011. I saw it when I explored the Neolithic “passage temple” at New Grange in Ireland, where a community we know almost nothing about built an intricate, solstice oriented stone structure that remains water-tight to this day. I sensed it when I looked at the crumbling walls of ancient cathedrals in England. I felt it it when I walked the ruins of the nunnery on the sacred Scottish island of Iona. And I see it every time I walk down 15th Avenue towards 50th Street.
I told much of this to Don as we stood looking at the half-demolished building in front of us. Then I looked down at the rubble of bricks on the ground in front of us. “I want one of those bricks,” I said. Don gave me a conspiratorial look and lifted the chain link fencing that surrounds the site. I ducked through and took a brick and a chunk of broken concrete with half a spiral on it. Then I hurried back out. I will use that brick and concrete in a labyrinth I am building on my farm. And I will remember U Christian’s legacy there too.
Meanwhile, our congregation is looking at its own future. We are a vibrant and energized community. Our plan is to continue to thrive in this place as we meet the spiritual needs of people in the 21st Century. I know that we also will not be here forever. But I believe we have years and decades and more of good and faithful work ahead of us. In this particular time in the history of our city and our nation and our world, we have a deep need need places of spiritual renewal. However our future unfolds, may we be inspired by our friend University Christian, with courage, lives, and legacies that share God’s love today and far into the future.