My dad taught me the old nursery rhyme: with his fingers laced inward, index fingers pointing up, and thumbs meeting, he’d recite, “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors, see all the people!” He would move his thumbs to reveal the “congregants” inside. Then, he would change the rhyme to describe church on Monday, this time lacing his fingers on the outside of his hands: “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors, where’s all the people?” Feigning shock, he would shift his thumbs to show his empty palms.
This lighthearted rhyme has taken on new poignancy in the age of COVID-19. Although many houses of worship have remained open throughout the pandemic—often providing food, shelter, healthcare, and other essential services—others remain closed, opting to continue with communal worship via Zoom. Even with confidence in in-person worship on the rise in the United States, six-in-ten American Christians say they will spend another Easter worshiping at home, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. I’ll be one of them.
It’s been over a year since I have set foot inside a church. I miss hearing the muted tones of the organ just before I enter the vestibule. I miss the smell of Easter lilies and old hymnals. I miss sitting in hued streams of light that pour through stained-glass windows. And while I’ll gladly continue to stay home until I am fully vaccinated, I won’t deny my eagerness to experience the unique spiritual comfort and awe I feel when I’m inside a church.
The absence has made my heart grow fonder for sacred places. Unfortunately, the antithetical adage of “out of sight, out of mind” may also ring true as church leaders anxiously wait to find out if their congregations will return after COVID. Without in-person attendance and regular income from collection baskets and parish fundraisers, our houses of worship face the possibility of permanent closure along with small businesses, museums, and other cultural institutions—but do we value sacred places as highly?
Vanessa Avery, executive director of Sharing Spaces, Inc., encapsulated the value of churches in the Winter 2021 issue of Sacred Places magazine, a publication of Partners for Sacred Places. In her article about an interreligious church restoration project, Avery explained that “a church is not simply a body of believers, nor is it just stone and mortar. Sacred spaces demonstrate the history, interests, hopes, concerns, and values of the people who use them.” It is that combination of people and place, the meeting of the material and the spiritual, and the intersection of the past and the future that makes our churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and meeting houses worth preserving.
If you care about our historic places of worship and you want to communicate that value to others, there are a few things you can do to support the faith communities that maintain them:
Donate to a congregation’s historic preservation efforts. As many congregations and religious orders work to provide for the needs of their communities, vital maintenance and preservation work often goes undone. Ask your local place of worship about their preservation needs or consider donating to Partners for Sacred Places, which provides grant funds and training to congregations across the country.
Take a walk in a historic cemetery. In addition to being spiritually rewarding, visiting a local historic cemetery or churchyard is a great way to connect with your community’s religious history. Remember to be respectful and check the website or call ahead for visitor information.
Make your list of sacred places to visit. There are many religious sites in the Greater Philadelphia Area that welcome visitors for worship or guided tours. You may not be ready to visit just yet, but why not use this time to prepare? BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Robbinsville, NJ), Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church (Queen Village), The Miraculous Medal Shrine (Germantown), Beth Sholom Synagogue (Elkins Park), Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (Society Hill), and the Arch Street Meeting House (Old City) top my “to visit” list. Remember to be respectful and check the website or call ahead for visitor information.
Which sacred places top your “to visit” list? What do you miss about attending in-person worship? What other steps can we take to support sacred places during these challenging times? Share your ideas in the comments below!
Danielle Lehr Schagrin grew up in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions. She is currently Director of Development & Marketing at Cranaleith Spiritual Center, a mission of the Sisters of Mercy in Northeast Philadelphia. A public historian by trade, Danielle is interested in the intersections of faith, community, and historic preservation.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, the church where I was baptized (The Church of the Redeemer in Andalusia, PA) is taking this time to complete vital restoration work on its stained-glass windows. This project will make the church more comfortable and energy efficient when it reopens for in-person worship.
Last Easter, my husband and I took a long morning walk around Lancaster Cemetery , a Victorian-era cemetery in Lancaster, PA. The site is open to visitors and is still an active burial ground.