In praise of church basements
Just last weekend I went to a dinner event with my family and one of the hosts inquired of me, “You work at St. Paul?” and then added, “it’s such a lovely facility.”
In the short time since I started serving here, I’ve heard this compliment often. I usually nod and smile – they’re right, of course. The sanctuary; the expansiveness, the acoustics, the intentionality in its design. It’s true. St. Paul Lutheran Church is a ‘lovely facility.’
But it’s also so much more.
A museum can be lovely. An art gallery, too. But a church ought to be more than just an attractive building. Hopefully it is a gathering space for grace to manifest; a dwelling place for the Spirit of God.
Most of the time when people comment on a church’s beauty, they aren’t thinking of the overstuffed education closets, the utilitarian classrooms, the fellowship hall with its many uses. But sometimes I wonder if maybe we should.
With that in mind, I think the next time I hear the facility compliment, I’ll respond: “Yes, but you really ought to check out our basement sometime!”
In fact, just this past Sunday I marveled as I watched dozens of children gather around Rita Hart, our volunteer children’s music director for this year’s Christmas pageant. She led the kids in song as they gathered in the Lower Commons, sitting snugly together on the cold carpeted cement floor. It warmed my heart as I watched hands dart up when Rita introduced the songs, asked who knew them, requested volunteers for lead parts.
And while this was a cherished moment on our lower level, it wasn’t the first one.
On other occasions I’ve smiled to myself as groups of children, youth, and adults gather in these basement rooms – sometimes for prayer activities, a pizza dinner feast, to recall creepy stories from the Bible, to bless socks that will go to the homeless, or to study a scripture more closely and then write a performance poem about it (like we did at VBS).
An evangelical writer I admire, Philip Yancey, sheds light on the overlooked activity in church basements – the underestimation of these spaces and their power. In his writing, he recalls the story of redemption many people in recovery find while attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. Plenty of these folks would never darken the door of a sanctuary, and yet the church basement has been their refuge; the gathering space for their collective hope.
Yes, it’s true. St. Paul Lutheran Church is a beautiful facility. But beauty has many forms. And in a funny way, I give thanks for this compliment I’ve received because of how it has made me reflect on the facility in which I work – cluttered closets, dinged up walls and all.