The Bearable Closeness of Being: Why Cities Create Community

This week, I’ve been thinking about one particular aspect of urban ministry that is frustrating and challenging, but also offers interesting opportunities. Among the issues raised in the discussion over the St. Francis house development (previous blog posts here and here) are increased noise, traffic, congestion, parking difficulties and vandalism. None of these is unique to the block on which the proposed development will be built. Urban churches deal with them every day and few are as affected by them as Grace Church. Three of the last four Sundays have seen parking restrictions and re-routed traffic on the streets around the church. We have had noise (and smells) from the Taste of Madison on September 4, and on September 11, in addition to the nightmare of the Ironman Triathlon, there were 9-11 services at the Capitol during our 8:00 service.

Still, the opportunities outweigh the challenges. In spite of the fact that people had incredible difficulty arriving for our 5:00 interfaith service on 9-11, there were around 150 people in attendance. All of that foot traffic around the square for Taste of Madison or the Triathlon is free publicity for our church and an opportunity to tell our story (at no monetary expense) to passers-by. Our courtyard garden is an important part of our mission, ministry, and outreach. I received a letter this week from a neighbor who praised its beauty and the hard work of our volunteer gardeners.

I was intrigued by an essay by Richard Krawiec that explores the community created in urban settings. He argues that our random or regular encounters with people in the city create a certain kind of community:

In the city, community is created when the clerk who knows your face lets you take the sandwich, trusting you’ll be back tomorrow to pay.  When the guy at the newspaper kiosk remembers your interest in the Red Sox and sums up last night’s game for you as he hands you the Boston Globe.  When the owner of the small café invites you in after he has closed and personally cooks you something to eat.

It is a set of interactions, human behaviours that have meaning and expectations between its members. Not just action, but actions based on shared expectations, values, beliefs and meanings between individuals.  Interdependent.

He contrasts that sort of community and those random encounters with suburbia. It is something I’ve noticed as well. We know our neighbors better in the year we’ve lived in our Madison home than we got to know in 5 years in a Greenville County subdivision. The complete essay is here: The Bearable Closeness of Being: Why Cities Create Community

There is a challenge that faces us, however. It is that many of our neighbors are students, who grew up in suburbia and may not realize that they are living in a community that includes people other than other students, and that living in such a community brings with it shared responsibility and some shared values. Each class needs to be educated about that, both by the university and by the larger community.

The Bearable Closeness of Being: Why Cities Create Community | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network.

Update on St. Francis House


In response to concerns from the neighbors of St. Francis House, the developers have revised their proposal to include an 8-story rather than 14-story tower. The proposal is now working its way back through the approval process. This week, the Urban Design Commission gave its go ahead subject to some minor alterations. The next important meetings are the Plan Commission on September 19 and the Common Council meeting on September 20. Bishop Miller has written a letter to all of the Madison-area Episcopal parishes, urging members to write letters to members of the Plan Commission and City Alders.

As I have said before, this project is an important step in the revitalization of Episcopal Campus Ministry for the 21st century.  The development itself will provide the revenue stream necessary to fund that ministry. But this is not just about money. I am most excited about plans for the ministry and especially for the future of St. Francis House itself. The developers’ architects will be using the original plans for the chapel as they design a renovation of the original chapel for worship. This will restore the chapel’s aesthetic integrity and create (or re-create) a beautiful worship space for the use of the ministry.. More information about the proposed development is available on the St. Andrew’s website.

Earlier discussion of the development is here.

The St. Francis house brouhaha

I’ve had several inquiries from parishioners about what’s happening with St. Francis House, the Episcopal Chaplaincy at UW Madison, and decided it was time to offer my perspective. I’ve been a member of the board since early 2010. When I joined, discussions about the future of the chaplaincy were well underway. The chaplaincy had been funded by an endowment that over the last decade or more has been depleted in order to meet expenses. The building itself is in need of several hundred thousand dollars of deferred maintenance. Clearly, we were approaching a crisis.

At the end of its visioning process, the board concluded that the chaplaincy’s physical presence on UW’s campus was of vital importance and that we should do whatever we could to ensure that presence. We are also convinced of the importance of college chaplaincy to the future of the Episcopal Church. Such programs have served as the incubator for the church’s future leadership, and St. Francis House is no exception. We believe Anglicanism is a unique and powerful witness to the Christian faith that resonates with young people in an academic setting.

The chaplaincy’s greatest asset is its property, located on the heart of UW Madison’s campus. A number of options for moving forward were considered, including some sort of joint-venture development with our Lutheran neighbors. After exploring the possibility of an outright sale of the property, the board decided to move forward with a public/private partnership with a private developer. The plan is to demolish the 1964 chapel, move the historic building to the corner of the lot, and build an L-shaped student apartment complex on the remainder of the property. This portion of the property would return to the property tax rolls, and income from the project would place the Episcopal Chaplaincy on firm financial ground.

There has been lively debate on the board about the importance of having a physical presence on campus; in the end, the option to sell the property seemed shortsighted. It is also the case that an outright sale would not generate enough income to pay for the sort of chaplaincy envisioned by the board.

Bishop Miller wrote a letter on May 15 that captures the board’s reasoning and also speaks eloquently to the importance of campus ministry. He wrote:

Strengthening Campus ministry and the funding for it has been one of my priorities as bishop because it was through the Episcopal Ministry at Michigan State University I discovered The Episcopal Church and found a spiritual home. Over the last few years I have worked with our chaplains, the St. Francis House Board, and our diocesan convention to strengthen and restore this ministry. Each week a faithful community gathers for prayer, fellowship, and study at our home at 1001 University Avenue. Over the past eight years the ministry at St. Francis House has produced some great future leaders of our church including one candidate for ordination, and two others who are now exploring the possibility of ordained ministry while serving as missioner of the Episcopal Service Corps.

The full letter is here: bishopsletter.

The City Planning Commission rejected the proposal at its meeting this week. There has been vocal opposition from our neighbors at Luther Memorial Church. It is unfortunate that this conflict has arisen. Bishop Miller, the board, and the developers have worked hard to assuage any concerns our neighbors might have. In the end, however, our primary obligation is  to strengthen the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Chaplaincy at UW.

Who knows what will happen next but the board remains committed to this project and the promise it holds for empowering Episcopal campus ministry in the coming decades.

For background reading here are relevant articles from the Madison State Journal