In December of 1918, Rev. John Haynes Holmes, Senior Minister of what was then called The Church of the Messiah, located at 10 Park Avenue, was offered a job in Chicago directing a non-profit dedicated to the end of war. Rev. Holmes had made a name for himself as a pacifist during the First World War, infuriating, even embarrassing, some of his congregants. Holmes was at a crossroads, so he left his family in NY and went to Boston to spend a week or two in retreat at his parent’s house where he contemplated his future. (Quick note- had he been a woman/mother, that wouldn’t have happened.) He decided that he couldn’t continue with the ministry he had, but would prefer to stay in New York if his ministry could be different. Upon his return, he met with the Board to explain to them that if they wanted him to remain, there were things he needed.
As a church, we talk about this as the time Holmes changed the name of the church, but it was far more extensive than that. Holmes convinced the board and then the congregation to walk away from the Unitarian Association altogether and instead to grab hold of a brand new idea, the Community Church movement. Instead of embracing Unitarian theology as they had and their parents before them going back generations, he wanted them to think about what it meant to be a “house of prayer for all people”. He had a vision of something never before considered, something wide open, expansive, even radical.
And he didn’t stop there. He wanted a free pulpit. I haven’t gotten confirmation, but I’m 99% certain that Holmes set the standard for liberal churches today. Ministers have a free pulpit, meaning we can preach what we want without a church committee clearing our topics or our opinions in advance. Not to say you don’t all have a lot of opinions, but I’m not bound by them the way Holmes was. Holmes pitched this new idea to them, saying if he was going to preach for them, he’d need to be free to say what he felt called to say.
In total, I think he had 19 separate demands and each one of them was mind-boggling and ground-breaking. The board met and discussed, as I’m sure we can all imagine and then they agreed to those things over which they had authority. The rest they took to the congregation. That congregational meeting was pretty intense and some members walked out never to return. But, the vote was taken and Rev. Holmes’s vision for the church was adopted in January, 1919. Nine months later, on September 11th at 3:00 in the morning, the church caught fire and burned nearly to the ground.
The newly renamed and reimagined Community Church of New York, no longer connected to a large denominational system, found itself without a home and feeling pretty untethered. Rev. Holmes found them space to meet at City Hall where they worshipped for the next 28 years. During that time, he started a newsletter called Unity dedicated to peace-making and sold his sermons each week for five cents as part of the urgent effort to raise money for the church. They also sold their property at 10 Park, retaining 3 apartments which we still own. The church went from being in significant debt to having enough saved to build 40 E. 35th street. They soon purchased the 4 brownstones next door and worked to build up an endowment. Membership increased, making Community Church the largest in the movement, and possibly the largest in the Unitarian Association as well, once they rejoined the denomination in the 60s.
The legacy of Community Church is dramatic. It’s an honor to have been called to this pulpit, and it’s a responsibility to sit in our pews, even metaphorically, because of the history we are called to protect and honor. It’s a history of cutting edge theology going back to our very beginning in 1825, being at the forefront of the Unitarian movement, breaking away from traditional Congregational thought and forging a new theological path. With each minister and each new age, we not only stayed relevant, we remained at the front of the line, pushing the American religious conversation through the Industrial Revolution, and Immigration no city in the world had ever experienced and then into a full-bodied adaptation of the Social Gospel. When Rev. Holmes enlivened the new theological concepts of justice and service for the poor, it was startlingly new. Religion was just starting to wonder about how to translate the Gospel into political language when Holmes set the entire genre on fire through both preaching and living into these new liberal values. Through the 20th century, this community church redefined “community” extending our borders in relationship with India and South Africa, always understanding that our family is the entire human race. We’ve been at the front of the line in all the major movements from labor to women to civil rights, every time demonstrating that we know how to pray with our feet.
It's a long and proud history and I’m grateful to be part of it.
But, it’s history. For the last twenty years, this church has been in decline. I don’t want to pretend that isn’t true. Membership fell by hundreds due to conflict and in-fighting. The reputation of the church as an outward-facing, justice-working, bastion of liberal religion has all but disappeared and what’s left is little more than the hope that we can reclaim our place. One of the leaders in our UU Movement told me recently that he mourns the loss of Community Church as a leader in the denomination. It’s a message I’ve been getting since I was first called. I’ve been offered support from people all over the country who want to help resuscitate this once glorious institution. More hopefully, one of the biggest UU stars called me a few weeks ago, telling me she now thinks Community Church is the One to Watch and called us a Phoenix Rising.
I’m going to agree with her. We are What’s Next. It wouldn’t be smart to count us out now, even though plenty of people think the safest bet is on our failure. We are currently living on the success of those who went before us. We are riding on the reputation they created for us. We are enjoying the money they saved for us. We are cozy in the buildings they built for us, even as those buildings are crumbling around us.
This brings us to the questions facing us today. It is my task as Senior Minister in this moment to ask “How are we meeting the needs of a new world?” “How are we setting the church up for the next hundred years?” “How will Community Church become, again, a justice-seeking, fully-inclusive, prophetic house of prayer for all people?” “What will we bring to a post-industrial, climate-altered, multi-racial, multi-cultural, post-pandemic New York City?” Something in this nation is struggling to be born. Are we going to be born again with it, or will we be the old order that needs to die to make room for what’s next? We are not the only one’s waiting with bated breath to find out. Are we the past or are we the future?
Rev. John Haynes Holmes built our church building and he’d be the last person who would want us to save it. He was a pillar of change. He wanted to serve the world and wasn’t interested in anything holding him or his church back. He certainly wasn’t going to serve a building over the mission. His effectiveness was born of his fearlessness and his commitment to living boldly.
The vote being taken today will be a landmark in our history. It will be the moment when the church made a decision to thrive, even in the face of risk and the unknown. But, a few of you have asked what happens if the vote doesn’t pass. Well, we’ve looked at the numbers. The only way for us to survive would be to cut our staff by 5 or 6, maybe 7 people, and to reduce our program to a fraction of what it is. Our expenses are high, but most of them are unchangeable. We pay a lot in property taxes, believe it or not, and to heat old buildings and in upkeep and constant maintenance. There’s nothing we can do about that if we keep these buildings. We have three people on staff just managing our decrepit buildings and we can’t exist without them. I’ve looked at other staff positions and the only thing that’s optional is our program. Things like Religious education, Adult Programs, Membership, Communication and Ministry. Those are the things we opt for and could opt out of. Given the enormous draw our budget takes from the endowment and how quickly that money is evaporating, the only chance we have at survival is to cut our program. To be honest, though, were we to do that, I’m not sure what we’re surviving for. We’ll spend all our time and money managing these old buildings at the expense of our mission.
The other option is that we don’t. We have the chance right now to sell our buildings, to build new, state-of-the-art space, to secure our endowment for decades to come, and to grow our program and membership exponentially. We would still own 30,000 square feet, similar to what we own now, but it would be located in a larger building. We’ve all seen the numbers. I started this process hoping we could renovate, (like, really hoping) but…the data is the data. We met with dozens of experts, looked this every different way. I don’t like it, but it’s real anyway. So, instead of complaining or mourning, I found the opportunity being offered and I’ve since gotten very excited about what’s possible.
Once we ritualize our letting go, once we come to terms with our sadness and loss, we can start dreaming about what’s next. Here are some of the things I’ve been dreaming about. I’d love to hear about the world you want to build as well. I have a vision of a 7-day church, alive and open, providing spiritual and social opportunities and organizing for justice all week. I’d like to house environmental activists and start a think tank for alternative economic systems. I want to create a safe haven for LGBTQ youth in the city and I want to convert unusable buildings across the river into beautiful and affordable housing. I want to hire people to plant vegetable gardens on rooftops all over the city and I want Community Church to be a center for activists seeking a safe place to gather. The new building will have a JHH Research Library; I’d love for us to compile member testimonials about life at Community Church, remembering people who have passed and turning points in our shared history. And, I’d like there to be an International Office where we prepare campaigns to address genocide and humanitarian crises and I’m dreaming about bringing thought leaders into our space for lectures that propel us forward. And, I’d like to have artists and dancers in residence who use our studios and bring their work into our shared spiritual life.
In his book New Churches for Old, John Haynes Holmes says that if the bible were to be destroyed, it would be at no loss, for the people would write it again from their own inspired souls. He goes on to say that if churches were similarly destroyed, it would also be without loss. The people would build new churches, giving voice to their own needs and ideals. Rev. Holmes may have built these church buildings, but he’d be the last one to tell us not to take them down and start again with a new vision for a new world. What makes our legacy lasting is our ongoing willingness to reinvent ourselves, to redefine Church.
When worship is over, we’re going to reconvene to discuss the redevelopment of our buildings. I know for many of you, this is exciting and a sign of good things to come. For a few of you, this vote is asking you to trust in a process you weren’t in control of, and I know that’s difficult. For others, you don’t want to let go of what you know and love and this leap of faith feels like too much to ask, especially during a pandemic when there’s already too much loss. What we have in common is our shared love for this church, this once glorious, seriously declining, ready for rebirth, church that stood on the cutting edge of liberal religion and is now dangerously close to falling off the cliff.
I’m hoping for more than a majority vote this morning. I’m hoping we can all say we Are What’s Next. Community Church is a phoenix rising. Like those who went before us 100 years ago, we will rise from these ashes, transformed and poised to carry a new vision into a new world.