Unitarians worship at 9 o'clock in the suburbs, 11 o'clock downtown.
To relieve overcrowding in its suburban building, the 415-member Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, took the unorthodox step in 2009 of buying a classic old church building near downtown from a declining mainline congregation. Now UCH holds its 9:00 a.m. service in the suburbs, and at 11:00 it rocks its urban building. The two services are identical, but feel very different, says the Rev. Howard Dana, senior minister. “The earlier service is quieter, more introspective, and the eleven o’clock is livelier.” Last May the congregation completed its first year in the second building.
The congregation has become deeply engaged in its urban community, says Dana.
“In the past year we’ve had 100 times more social justice opportunities than were happening three years ago. People wanted this, and they’re putting amazing energy into the neighborhood.” They help with a monthly community breakfast, till an urban garden, teach English, and help local residents in many other ways.
Cost was the easy part. UCH paid around $450,000, including renovations to the roomy, 1912 building, compared to multiple millions it would have needed to expand in the suburbs. Not everyone agreed with the purchase. The vote was 123 to 101. Since the vote there have been many heartfelt conversations, Dana said, adding, “It’s hard to see the church you joined change.” Seventy-five to 100 prefer the suburban service, and 150 to 200 attend the urban one. A half-dozen households have left the church. It has also gained about 40 members.
The new neighborhood has a fairly high crime rate. In March a taxi driver was killed in front of the church while a service was under way. That brought some underground conversations about the purchase out in the open where they could be addressed, he said.
There is an interfaith quality to the work, as well. On the church’s urban block are an African-American Baptist church, a Latino Catholic church, and a Muslim congregation. “We’re partnering with each of them in some way,” Dana said. “Sharing a street corner makes all the difference. They watch out for us and we for them. They use our building when they need more space. And we’re all working together to get the drug dealers off the corner.”
He said when he talks to other UU ministers the comments range from admiration to “Y’all are just crazy.” He said he knows of no other UU congregations that have similar suburban-urban situations, but he predicted there may be more. “In the next 10 years there will be literally thousands of mainline church buildings that come on the market, as those congregations continue to decline in size. There will be opportunities to buy stunning inspirational spaces rather than having to convert a storefront.”
Dana says the urban ministry has energized the congregation—and his own ministry. “Now there is energy. It’s work that really matters. People feel really good about doing it.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (page 46). A longer version appeared in the June 2012 InterConnections; sign up for a free email newsletter subscription.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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