Redeeming Civic Life in the Commons

We’ve been having a lively conversation about sacred space at Adult Forum on Sundays, about where we find it, what it is, and then we moved into talking about the understandings of sacred space in scripture. Our conversations are part of the master-planning process Grace Church has been undergoing for the last year or more. You can learn more about that process here. Many of my own reflections on Grace’s unique role as the church on Capitol Square can be followed here.

I came across an essay written by Eric O. Jacobsen: Redeeming Civic Life in the Commons. He writes about developments in urban planning in post-WWII America that have transformed the landscape across the country and also transformed communities. He also writes about church’s role in rebuilding communities and the notion of the common good:

I think that one of the most important secondary roles that the church plays in the neighborhood is to help redeem the notion of community. Whatever else I’ve already said about the specific attributes of shalom, underlying all of them is an implicit commitment to some aspect of a common life that is lived out in the common spaces of the community. It is getting increasingly difficult for members of society to articulate on what basis this common life exists.

A second role for churches is this:

I think that the church in the neighborhood could exert this kind of centripetal force on a neighborhood if it was cognizant of the value of this role. In order to do this, a church would have to have a pretty strong sense of its physical connection to its neighborhood. This perspective would have been taken for granted when there was a stronger sense of church parish in the community.

Unfortunately, many churches have completely lost any sense for how to do this. Many churches have adopted the suburban campus model that places its buildings in the middle of a large parking lot and is completely cut off from the fabric of the neighborhood. Or older churches that are more embedded in a neighborhood often develop a kind of fortress mentality toward the neighborhood in which they are located.

We are now two years away from the protests of 2011 which were, in many ways, a spontaneous outburst of community–people coming together around a notion of the common good. I’m struck by the way the State Capitol has been transformed in those two years.  The actions of recent months on the part of the politicians have transformed the Capitol into a fortress. It certainly is no longer “the people’s house.” And our common life has suffered for it.

Grace Church served a unique role during the protests. For a few weeks our open doors were both a witness to a shared common life and a haven of respite for many. Among the key questions we need to ask ourselves as we talk about our physical spaces is how we might make those spaces available for the whole community, and how our physical spaces might witness to the good news of Jesus Christ and to a vision of a common good.

Some other ideas on place and space:

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