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Bethlehem Lutheran Church sacrificed its sanctuary for a greater good

If all (or even a slim majority of) Lutheran churches were like Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I would still be Lutheran. Since they aren’t, I’m not.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself, and made this way too much about me.

Late last week, there was a big boom at the corner of Salisbury and North Florissant in the north St. Louis neighborhood of Hyde Park. It sounded like a truck wreck, but it turned out to be the wall and roof of a 120-year-old sanctuary crashing to the ground. The building had been abandoned since 1995. The old Gothic structure, designed to seat 1,100, was struck by lightning three times in 1989 and the dwindling congregation of about 100 couldn’t afford the $85,000 repair. Instead, they converted a bowling alley in the basement of their defunct school to serve as a sanctuary. By the time I saw the building for the first time in 1999, the cost of repair had ballooned to seven digits. An influential member of the congregation told me then that they had looked into just demolishing the damaged portion and saving the rest of the building, but since it was a historic building, the state wouldn’t allow it. So it sat. The excellent Built St. Louis blog documents the sad decline, which started with a bolt of lightning and ended with metal thieves.

Instead, soon none of the building will be left. The preservation laws failed this time.

Now, had they said the right things, likely involving purity of doctrine and purity of liturgy, perhaps they could have found a benefactor to fund the repair of the old church. But then it would have been a nice church in a war zone. When I first visited the neighborhood in 1999, it looked like the Air Force had been using it for bombing practice. Look at the area on Google’s satellite view, and you see lots of buildings without roofs, especially to the north and the west. In 1999, there were more of them. Starting at mid-decade, Bethlehem started buying up buildings and vacant lots to the south and west, razing what couldn’t be saved, fixing what could, and filling in the empty spaces with new, affordable, decent housing for people who couldn’t afford housing on their own but demonstrated an ability to care for something if they only had the opportunity.

Seeing a need for an alternative to St. Louis public schools, but knowing a Lutheran school was no longer viable, instead they helped a charter school get off the ground and leased space in their disused former Lutheran school building to it. Today, 140 children from the surrounding area can get a better education and better opportunity than they could a decade ago.

Today, the streets immediately to the south and to the west of Bethlehem look very different. It looks like a neighborhood you could safely walk around at night. In 1999, I was very nervous about going there at night.

Every other Lutheran congregation I’ve attended was wrapped up in status, or doctrinal purity–Baptists are a favorite target–or, in many cases, both. Last year I got tired of my family asking me, “Why are we Lutheran again?” We found a church not too unlike Bethlehem, actually. The church is in a working-class neighborhood, surrounded by auto repair shops, auto parts stores, bars, discount grocery stores, and houses 900 square feet or smaller built before 1950. They talk a lot about neighborhood outreach, and bettering the community around it. They don’t have to rebuild it from scratch like Bethlehem did, but would be willing to do so if needed.

The historian and preservationist in me is sad to see Bethlehem’s once-majestic church building reduced to pallets of bricks, destined to build overpriced houses for rich people somewhere other than St. Louis. The security professional in me cringes that a building teetering on collapse put human lives at risk between June 2013, when the city condemned it, and March 2014, when its walls fell. But the Christian in me realizes that Bethlehem had a choice: Rebuild the building, built for a time when the church and neighborhood had 10 times as many people in it as it does today, or rebuild the neighborhood.

The building, as nice as it once was, had outlived its usefulness. They chose the neighborhood, and for that I salute them.

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