Of attics and barnacles

When items once precious but now outdated by neglect or wear come to the end of their fruitful life, we are more likely to drag them along behind us, rather than toss them onto a refuse heap. Whether it’s school days memorabilia or household items we are sure still have useful life remaining, we carve, stack, sort and shove out a space for it in the attic, and then cart it from house to house in successive moves.

Once tucked away again, we don’t give it a second thought until the day we move again or finally throw up our hands and say, “This stuff has got to go!” After a quick sort we toss 90 percent of the stuff we considered so precious a decade earlier and compliment ourselves on the newly acquired floor space.

The same winnowing process seldom works for a church. Churches don’t move and instead, they accumulate memorabilia from ancient days like barnacles onto the hull of the congregation, increasing the drag and slowing forward progress.

On a recent double dip trip to Philadelphia I spent a day interviewing the architects of a transformation at First Baptist Church, one of the oldest congregations in the country.

Then, I helped my son clean out his attic.

It’s the same job.

The First Baptist Church congregation – a dwindling remnant of about 30 active souls – came to the stark conclusion in December 2013 that they had about six months of operating reserve before they would have to close their doors.

They worship in a magnificent, domed, stone and steel structure built in 1899. It is in the heart of center city Philadelphia. It sits a block from public transportation terminals, shoulder to shoulder with hotels and condos, a bulwark shouldering above a lace of streets and sidewalks teeming with tourists, shoppers, homeless and young professionals who live and work in the canyon shadows.

The building once hosted original oratorios. Tradition says ushers served in tails and gloves. The city’s most influential citizens plopped in its pews, either to worship or to be seen. Gold leaf covered the interior walls until a fire in 1949, giving the room a soft yellow hue.

Then the suburbs beckoned to members with children. Access to downtown grew more crowded and difficult. Expensive habits were hard to break.

And preserving the building became the congregation’s mission.

Maintaining the 68,000 square feet with century old systems sucked up their funds like tornadoes over trailer parks. They realized they couldn’t do it anymore.

First Baptist Church of Philadelphia was chartered in 1699 with nine members. They held their first meetings in a Sunday morning empty saloon.

As church trustees were considering sale of their facility 314 years later, trustee chair Mary Lynn Williams led a reflection on the church’s nine founding members.

“Sitting around a table with 10 members, we talked about the difference between the church’s first nine and us ‘last nine,’” Williams said. “What were the first nine looking at? The future. Our problem is we kept looking back.

“Our looking backward all the time and our need to preserve this tradition is part of the reason we’re in the shape we’re in. The building was an albatross around our necks.”

First Baptist sold their facility for $2 million to Liberti Church, a young Reformed Church in America congregation that had been renting the sanctuary for nearly two years. Liberti Church promised to raise $10 million to renovate the historic structure, a remodeling that will include a special space for First Baptist to continue to meet there.

As First Baptist struggled to make ends meet, they unloaded some things that once were precious. They sold their Queen Anne silver to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They rented space to a theatre troupe. When the building transaction was complete, they sold their pipe organ to an historic organ trust that will restore it and give it on permanent loan to another historic downtown church.

When survival is uncertain, formerly precious items become ballast.

When staying afloat requires it, they can be tossed overboard.

My son wasn’t trying to stay afloat when he surveyed his crowded attic. But the time had come to go through the boxes he and his wife said they were going to go through when they moved into the house eight years earlier.

We schlepped boxes filled with memories once too precious to part with from the attic to the garage, with only a quick pass through the body scanner that was my daughter-in-law’s eyes to examine contents.

But she was less sentimental this time, pulling some of the music she studied as a child for her six-year-old daughter. Books, pictures, trophies and camp crafts got one more chance to tug the sentimental chord with her. If they didn’t, they were gone. And she was a hard sell.

A quick call to 1-800-Got-Junk cleared the garage. Sorting through sentiment at your church might not be as easy, but as First Baptist Church Philadelphia learned, it’s never too early.

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