The View from Bolton Street

Memorial’s Past, Present and Future

As the son of a history teacher, I have always had an uneasy relationship with the past. “Guys, look at this (old thing in some old place that looks just like all the other old things we’ve seen this trip)!”  was more or less the sum total of my childhood experience. I have seen every battlefield, church, or monument that you can find.  You know those families that pull over on the side of the road to look at the historical markers? That was us. Every. Single. One.

At the same time, all that “stewing” in history has left its mark. I am keenly aware that those who don’t know their past are doomed to repeat it, and that in the words of either Paul Harvey or St. Augustine, “In times like these it is important to remember that there have always been times like these.”

That is to say — It is never quite as good or quite as bad as we might think.

It has been a joy to share with my fellow pastors at Brown and Corpus Christi as we have learned from each other and about each other in studying the histories of our three parishes and our community;  and as we have also learned to speak more fluently about race, class, and religion and how it both divided and united this neighborhood through the years.

One thing that has been made apparent to me is that many things have changed about Memorial but some things have NOT.  Our culture has remained very much the same!  From the beginning we were a church that preferred to put money in the community and not “waste it” on the building.  We were a church rooted in the community around us and willing to open our doors to all of our neighbors.  We were a church that was almost pointedly stubborn when it came to doing what we were told! — especially when it was another church (Emmanuel) or the diocese telling us what to do. 

Much of that has not changed.

It also has helped me realize that culture change is hard in an institution.  And while many of our good qualities shine through in our common culture, some of our negative qualities do as well. 

On the vestry retreat we wrestled with two very different but quite related questions: WHY does Memorial have a hard time maintaining a strong children’s program? WHY does Memorial continue to be a predominantly white church in a predominantly black city?  Much of our discernment came down to an issue of culture and of hospitality. 

As much as we say we are welcoming, we have never, in our long history, done anything to change our culture in order to make Memorial Church feel like a home for young children and people of color. Two comments that reflect this that I have heard recently are: “My children like it here, but they don’t feel like they belong here” and “I love Memorial, but I don’t feel like I can be my whole self in this community.” I believe I am on form ground saying this is not the kind of culture that this community can tolerate for very long. 

We began a bit of that work on Sunday by “flipping over the tables” (or the chairs at least) in the sanctuary.  But the work is far from over. The Vestry and your Rector look forward to working with you more fully on this transformation of culture as we seek to really be, as our Presiding Bishop has asked, the Beloved Community, “the body within which we promote the fruits of the Spirit and grow to recognize our kinship as people who love God and love the image of God that we find in our neighbors, in ourselves, and in creation.”