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Orthodox Church plans for its future but not at the expense of its past
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Nina Dewberry, left, and her husband David Dewberry attend Sunday services at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church on 355 S. 300 E. in downtown Salt Lake on Sunday, April 22, 2018. The church is planning on building a new building and are trying to find funding, but having a difficult time doing so while staying in the same location. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
It's sprawling room only during Father Justin Havens' sermons at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church. The bench that runs along three of the sanctuary's four walls fills up quickly, and those without a seat must settle for a spot on one of six large rugs.

Adults on the floor sit cross-legged, shifting uncomfortably every few minutes and occasionally standing to stretch their legs. Younger worshipers seem to embrace their predicament, pretending the rug is a pasture for toy horses or crawling across the soft surface to visit a friend.

The Rev. Havens, the church's head priest, observes this scene each Sunday morning with a mix of pride and distress. Against the odds, his flock is growing, and soon, they may not fit.

"It's a good problem," he said. But it's still a problem. Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church needs a new home.

For faith groups, moving is more complicated than finding sturdy boxes and renting a big enough truck. There are tough decisions to be made about the old building, which affect even those who have never been inside, said Julio Bermudez, director of the Sacred Space and Cultural Studies graduate concentration at the Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning.

If congregations sell their building to a secular developer, their old neighborhood loses a chance to connect with God, he said. But finding a new sacred use for the building is hard on a faith group's bottom line.

When faced with the potential loss of a sacred space, communities should look for ways to meet future needs while still honoring the past, Bermudez said.

"There are opportunities to move forward in faith and, at the same time, fit with modern times," he said.

Religious real estate

For centuries, sacred architecture anchored American cities, bringing a sense of the transcendent to the neighborhoods in which people lived, worked and shopped.

"You would typically see a church at the center of town. The church steeple was the tallest building in the city," said Aaron Renn, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Even as skyscrapers came to dominate skylines, houses of worship influenced city identities from their place in the shadows, Bermudez said.

"When you live with a building for a long time, it becomes part of how you see yourself, not just as an individual, but as a community," he said.

But these days, historic houses of worship increasingly are threatened by demographic shifts and real-estate costs, experts said. Congregations are moving worship services to the suburbs for a different amount of space, shorter commutes or lower upkeep costs.

"According to the CoStar Group, which tracks real estate data nationwide, church sales in the United States jumped by almost 100 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of church redevelopment projects more than tripled during that time," The Washington Post reported in 2016.

Downtown churches in cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Baltimore are being demolished to make room for high-rise condo buildings or transformed into trendy restaurants, Bermudez said. These communities may happily make use of the new building, but they're losing an important link to faith.

"Sacred buildings affect our orientation to society," he said. "Their presence and character lends us a sense of solemnity and respect."

The Rev. Havens has observed recent real-estate trends with horror. He said it felt "sacrilegious" to eat sushi in a nearby restaurant that was once a church.

"It makes me sick to my stomach. I feel like we're living in a secular society where things that are holy aren't held as sacred anymore," he said.

However, his church's current predicament illustrates how difficult it is to protect sacred buildings even in the midst of congregational growth.

Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church is more than $700,000 short of the $1 million it needs to make a down payment on new land south of Salt Lake. Selling the current building could make up the difference, but the Rev. Havens isn't willing to let the place where his children were baptized stop serving as a church.

"From a business perspective, people might say, 'Why don't you sell it? You can take that money and buy the property,' but I think that would be shortsighted," he said.

Faithful stewardship

When faced with a building-related crisis, faith groups have to reflect on their own resources and needs, as well as the history of their community, said Ben Heimsath, an architect in Austin who specializes in church projects.

"You've inherited that (building) from previous generations. How can you steward that gift?" he said.

Different congregations will answer that question differently, and that's OK, Heimsath said. He recently spent a year writing about how houses of worship evolve as their community shifts around them, praising congregations that found a way to repair their building and carry on, in addition to those that allowed an old building to find new life as a bakery or restaurant.

A common thread in what he considers the success stories is that congregations received outside help. They were able to find another faith group to purchase their building, lean on community members to fund repairs or work with a developer to ensure their old space would still serve people in need in some way.

But outside help is often slow to come, Renn said. People who live near a beautiful, historic church building don't step in to save it until there is already a construction crew on site.

"A lot of times, buildings get very little love until they're about to be demolished," he said.

Additionally, it may be growing more difficult for faith communities to access grant money. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that officials in Morris County violated the state's constitutional separation of church and state by awarding public money to houses of worship.

"The New Jersey ruling, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, found that the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders had violated the religious aid clause in the State Constitution when they provided preservation grants to help houses of worship renovate their facilities," The New York Times reported.

A variety of cultural and legal shifts are working against houses of worship today, which is unfortunate for faith groups and the communities they inhabit, according to Bermudez.

"I think we've lost a sense of the common good. That's what religions do: they bring a sense of common good to a community," he said.

The Rev. Havens envisions a future role for his congregation's current building that would benefit more than Orthodox Christians. He wants to offer daily worship for downtown residents, as well as a ministry for the homeless men and women who sometimes gather near the sidewalk outside.

In the midst of his congregation's fundraising woes, the Rev. Havens is working to honor the past sacrifices made for his current house of worship, even if it leads to more sacrifices today.

"We're trying to take care of (this building) and be good stewards of it. You can see the beautiful woodwork and what people have put into it," he said, noting that his congregation has worshipped in the building, which used to be a synagogue, for about 25 years.

He wants to do his part to preserve sacred architecture, which he believes offers an antidote to the chaos of modern life.

"Everyone I do confession with says the same thing: Life is so crazy. Work is so crazy. School is so crazy. This is a place to come and be still and know that he is God. I know people are really craving that," the Rev. Havens said.
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