Building A Church That Changes
Shiny Buildings is a new web-based application built to help you take care of your home, apartment, Federalist-era church (?!), etc., and hopefully tell a story about that building in the process. Every building is unique and interesting, and has plenty of history to share. On occasion, though, we'll highlight certain buildings with a blog post!
Here's our first one - the Old West Church in downtown Boston. Hope you enjoy!
I was about to interview Sara Garrard, pastor at the Old West Church on Cambridge Street in Boston, and I was very nervous, albeit for a somewhat surprising reason. During the early 2000's, I'd grown up in a suburb not too far away, and even as a not-so-great Catholic at the time (I'm worse now), I can confidently recall that it was not the best time to be a kid unsupervised in a church. Needless to say, my parents had warned me on more than one occasion about the downside of spending time alone with certain religious figures, yet here I was - at the tender age of 32 - on my way to meet Pastor Sara, assuming (and hoping) we'd be at least six feet apart the entire time.
But that's not why I was scared. Alas, this wasn't intended to be a Spotlight investigation anyway. I really just wanted to talk to Sara about the work she does and the building where it happens. And yet I was nearly shaking. As a full-time designer but only an amateur journalist, I'd done my initial research (nearly three or four Google searches) and come to a single conclusion: for someone who works in a church, Pastor Sara seemed very, very cool.
^ This is Pastor Sara, courtesy of OWC
Not only cool, but also very smart (we can start with the degrees from Emory and Cambridge, i.e., the British one 😎). And of course, by the nature of her profession, she was essentially closer to God than Kevin Bacon himself. As a mere mortal only prepared to nerd out on building-talk, I was likely in over my head whichever way you spun it.
Thankfully, an interview on the steps of a semi-ancient monument to hope and generosity seemed like a convenient place to find mercy.
Sara beckoned me from the corner of Cambridge Street and Staniford, and as I walked through the gates - the church's towering facade obscured by scaffolding to the top of its cupola - I could tell that Sara was not my mother's - or even your mother's - pastor. On this day, she had atomic blonde hair, likely a nose-ring obscured by her well-secured face mask, and wore combat boots. Like your correspondent, though, it turned out that she also has a strong affinity for Allbirds on more casual occasions.
But unlike her intimidating pedigree, Sara was warm, engaging, and extremely open. I wanted to ask her about herself, her path to this spot in the West End / Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, and her relationship with the church building itself. Despite the gravity of caring for a 215-year old structure, it turns out that she has lofty ambitions for the Old West Church. It's fair to say, though, that Sara has already started to turn the building into a literal brick-and-mortar version of herself.
Sara's path to becoming the leader and caretaker of a building located in one of America's most progressive and probably least religious capitals began in one of Boston's ideological antitheses, Georgia. Her mom was an assistant pastor at a "Big Steeple" church there, one that was part of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and more akin to an arena-style "mega-church" than a quaint old New England chapel. Sara herself enjoyed the community, but always aspired to be a human rights lawyer, a mere "lay person" in church terms.
Unfortunately for her, at some point in college, she herself heard the calling to a career in Methodist ministry directly from the Big Dog Himself. (As someone for whom the quieter moments of college mostly entailed just a fistful or two of beer, this sounded like a drastically superior experience...) Her response:
Oh c'mon man! Why me!?! Fine...
So began her aforementioned forays through the vaunted ivory towers mentioned above. She picked up degrees in Divinity and Ministry along the way, and a thesis in the redemption of female sexuality to boot. As a rising star, she was quickly recruited for a pastor role by a congregation similar to the one she grew up in. Despite clear indicators of her burgeoning independent streak - she sported blue-dyed hair and a spiked collar during her interview - the church's recruiting committee deemed her to be just about the perfect candidate.
Only one thing was amiss: she was roughly a teenager and yet didn't have a kid of her own. Deciding that she'd rather be the assistant manager of a ministry for dogs than have a baby just to fit the idyllic archetype of a Southern pastor, Sara opted to hold out. In place of a prized position preaching to the masses, she found herself instead sizing shoes at a local running shoe store. Although I personally believe retail work in America is one of the more sacrificial and underrated forms of service one can provide toward his or her fellow human - and parallels aside to the pious imagery of caring for the feet of one's followers - it thankfully wasn't long before higher callings again fell into Sara's lap.
^ Pastor Sara with a baby (not her own), courtesy of OWC
Ministries across the country contacted her, including options in the somewhat super-religious Rocky Mountains. But as she seriously pondered a job in Colorado, Sara received a unique call from the New England Conference of the UMC.
The conference had an old church in Boston, with a shrinking ministry and shoestring budget. More than 60 years ago, they'd purchased the church hoping to create a great American "Cathedral of Methodists". Although the church had once been at the center of civic life in Massachusetts - hosting one of downtown Boston's central public libraries and even serving as a voting poll station for JFK himself - its religious reputation had languished amid poor leadership and deteriorating finances. In Sara, they felt they found someone with the energy, patience, and vision to finally bring the dream to fruition - and she was tempted.
To your correspondent, it seemed like pure heresy to reject the church in Colorado; any opportunity in such a skiing mecca would've been a match made in heaven for this devout practitioner of pow. But having known Sara for all of 20 minutes, it was clear that she was precisely the pastor they needed in New England. So in mid-2013, Sara packed her bags for Beantown.
She arrived to find a congregation with roughly 40 members and falling, an annual bill of $50K payable to the New England Conference, and the Old West Church - a 3.5 story, Federal-style structure originally built in 1806 - in need of $5.6 million of repairs and renovations, including nearly $150K in immediate issues. The task would be daunting for any owner or operator, let alone a newly minted divinity school graduate. As Sara put it:
"They don't teach you finance in Jesus school."
And as if that wasn't enough pressure, Historic New England, the OG of building preservation, was the church's next door neighbor.
Historic New England is one of the country's foremost architectural preservation and advocacy groups, and takes its role in protecting historic buildings seriously. While it takes care of many, many old buildings around the region, Historic New England kept a close watch on its neighbor, and even maintained a lien on the property after its sale in 1961 to ensure that it remained properly loved. When the new pastor (Sara) arrived, they quickly engaged to ensure that the $5M+ in capital improvements would be a priority. Little did they know, not only did Sara fully understand that the building needed to be protected and modernized - it turned out that she had a vision to make the Old West Church something far more than an architectural relic on a small hill in downtown Boston.
^ The Old West Church tower, courtesy of OWC
Building a Vision
If Sara were to build the church of the UMC's dreams, it would likely look like a good old fashioned Church™️. Sure, the New England Conference showed plenty of progressive foresight when it hired Sara to run one of the oldest churches in the country. At the national level, though, the UMC is still playing catch-up in many respects. In just 2019, it announced a "One Church Plan" that, despite recognizing the rights of LGBTQ people to love and marry one another, allowed member church's to reject this premise outright as means for avoiding "division" within the church. For Sara, a very recently married(!!!) member of the LGBTQ community herself, the decision was unsurprising given her upbringing. But while she accepts that different congregations and different conferences will continue to grapple with the issue at a slower pace, she views the fixation on sexuality as a sign of the church's inability to innovate at all - something far more likely to destroy, let alone divide the church.
Rather than wait for the UMC, Sara instead chose to build a church of the future herself. And that vision largely revolves around the Old West Church. Perhaps it's unsurprising, given that she's pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry with a focus on the theology of space. But her insights and recognition that religious structures have often acted as a genesis for the birth and growth of human societies throughout history, is as akin to a a shepherd seeking a safe home for her flock as it is a real estate developer seeking to "activate" a long-forgotten parcel...
The Old West Church is "...a really dope building" - Pastor Sara
As the saying goes, the Old West Church has 'great bones', albeit bones older than most buildings in America. It's a large, flexible, space, already supporting myriad uses. First, there's the Sunrise Learning Academy, a pre-school daycare center and the church's primary tenant. With space in the church's basement and exclusive access to an elevated yard overlooking Staniford Street, it brings daily energy to a site originally built for Sundays. Based on the happy cheers of it youthful tenants, who often taunt passersby and wave to their dogs, it seems to be perfectly appointed for the job.
Another interesting user is the the Old West Organ Society, which maintains the church's famous Fisk organ, a marvel of music design perhaps deserving of its own blog post altogether. Although its contribution toward income is seemingly less than Sunrise Academy's, Sara has long envisioned a time when the church would host orchestra events and concerts that transformed the space into a special performance destination in the heart of Boston. Over the last few years, the dream had quickly started to materialize as Sara hosted and oversaw multiple weddings, with many more on the books. With a small amount of space also allocated toward co-working facilities, the church was increasingly home to as many - if not more - non-religious than religious inhabitants.
^ A glimpse of the Fisk Organ, courtesy of the Old West Organ Society
With less than 50 congregants, the church itself is perhaps the least regular user of the building. But one glance at the church's presence at the corner of Cambridge and Staniford - a colorful mural decorated with the likes of JFK, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Rosa Parks, and adorned with posters and flags in support of Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement - tells you that spiritual energy here reaches far beyond any day-to-day churching. Sara envisions the building as a "hub for social improvement". Given the Old West Church's previous roles as a station on the Underground Railroad and the site of draft-card burning and protests against the Vietnam War, such a purpose doesn't feel like a stretch. But Sara wants to upgrade the building to something more suitable for modern advocacy. One day, she hopes, the Old West Church will offer showers, washers, and dryers to support those who are housing insecure, facilities to feed large groups, expanded co-working and learning spaces, and better internet to connect everyone who wants to be involved.
^ An interior photo of the church, courtesy of OWC
Of course, there are also the basics. To do any of the interior work mentioned above, the building needs to be brought up to ADA compliance. Most of the windows were replaced in 2019 to improve the structure's thermo control, but additional work remains to make the building fully inhabitable to all uses. A renovation to the front yard, planned with the help of Cityscapes, should one day support a large garden that could feed congregants and homeless visitors. And currently underway is a major rehabilitation of the church's southern facade, originally designed by famous architect Asher Benjamin. It's a specimen that served to inspire many buildings constructed in the early years of American architecture throughout the Northeast and beyond.
All of this, of course, costs money. The facade repair will total around $400K alone, and the garden renovation is estimated at $100K. With an operating budget of $200K, it would be almost impossible to fund investments in the building directly from operations alone. But since taking over the church, Sara has led a massive grant-writing effort with the help and support of Historic New England. Sources like CPA funding, the Browne Fund, and the Henderson Foundation enable these projects to quickly progress (along with a fair dose of patience and optimism by all parties involved). Sara also creatively looks for other sources of funding, including weddings - which can bring in several thousand dollars at a time - and is even eyeing a potential "inconvenience fee" to be funded by the state ("Commonwealth") of Massachusetts if and when it decides to renovate the neighboring Hurley Building, an epic Brutalist building currently used for healthcare services.
^ The front yard (with the Hurley Building in the background), courtesy of OWC
Of course, in an ideal world, Sara would be freed of the earthly duties of fundraising and capital planning to focus on the spiritual needs of her congregation and the social justice issues that drove her to the ministry in the first place. But as a pragmatist, she recognizes that for those not directly involved in the church, the building is one of the best indicators of the work she wants to do. Projects like the facade renovation, in her opinion, are "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace." She feels that "allyship is earned" and that investments in physical capacities - even in centuries-old buildings like the church, are a form of "proving that previous misconceptions about the church are wrong, and demonstrating what the church is capable of" in 2020.
Ah, 2020... In 2019, Sara finally felt that the church was turning the corner on a bumpy past, with better management, increasing capital, and more energy than ever before.
Then COVID came to town.
Sunrise Academy saw its daily enrollment fall, leaving the church with nearly 50% less income than usual given a per child-based rent agreement. Sara's vision of the church as an event-space and co-working destination was also shattered. The church hall remains open for organ lessons, but weekly worship has transitioned to Youtube, and Sara herself rarely stops by than a few times per week given the circumstances. As a neighbor to Mass General Hospital, where ambulance sirens delivering new patients were nearly incessant at the beginning of the epidemic, Sara is thankful to see her congregation able to celebrate safe and sound from afar for now. But the situation is clearly not what she envisioned.
With funds dwindling, her biggest fear is perhaps having to sell the church in exchange for the funds to stay afloat, a scenario in which the Old West Church could be converted to luxury condos. It's a fate that's befallen many other older church buildings in Boston. She emphasizes that her "focus is on the mission", and the the building is merely a tool to achieving her goals. Clearly, if there's anyone who could lead a church without a church, it would be Sara.
But she also recognizes that if there's a time and place for a building to help people find light in the darkness, now is that time. In that respect, the renovation of the facade, built to demonstrate resilience and in memory of the original 1737 church built on the site and used by colonial Americans in their fight against the British, is highly symbolic and helpful. The restoration, a project that started amid a global pandemic and a painful national awakening over racial and economic suffering, is a sign that the church is being readied to serve at the forefront of a new battle for justice and a better society. It's a battle that Sara had started to prepare for well in advance, ahead of most of us. It's the reason she's not ready to give up on building the church she's envisioned for nearly seven years now.
"[We've] been planting seeds... and now [we're] excited to watch it grow."
Here at Shiny Buildings, we're excited to see where Sara takes the Old West Church, and the benefits we'll all likely reap because of it.
Good luck to Sara, and thanks for reading! Please click here if you'd like to learn more about the Old West Church .