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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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From the sanctuary to the basement

Religion News Service recently published an article titled “Five Religious Facts You Might Not Know about Frederick Douglass.” Written in honor of the statue of Douglass recently unveiled in Washington, D.C., the article discussed this social reformer’s little-noticed church life, his certification as a lay minister, the religious artifacts displayed in his home and all of the churches he attended in the U.S. capital. I opened the article more out of curiosity in the monument than anything else, but once I started reading something caught my eye.

According to this article Douglass published The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper, out of a church basement. And that got me thinking about all the other things that happen in church basements — or classrooms or bell towers or doorways for that matter.

Martin Luther sparked a reformation that would eventually give birth to the Lutheran church when he nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Paul Revere warned the Patriots about the British advance from the bell tower of the Old North Church in Boston in 1775. Martin Luther King Jr. launched his civil rights movement from church pulpits across the South in the '50s and '60s.

My church in Libertyville, Ill., isn’t old enough to be a stop on the Underground Railroad or a landmark on the Freedom Trail, but it is constantly bustling with activity. Holy Cross Lutheran Church rents rehearsal space to the Red Rose Children’s Choir, a regional group that radically shaped my life in the 10 years I sang with it. Our congregation also offers space to a local grief counseling program called Willow House, reaching out to children and families struggling with loss. Pilates classes held in our church’s basement teach people to keep their bodies healthy and whole.

Congregations across the country open their doors to food pantries, tutoring programs and town meetings. They serve as polling places, disaster shelters, blood donation banks. Not all of these programs have a religious affiliation — in fact, most do not. And yet churches remain open to them, encouraging their work and offering a safe space for them to operate.

Which is exactly how it should be. The “upstairs and downstairs” of our churches are inextricably linked. You can no more separate the sanctuary from the basement than you can the church from the community. 

Hebrews 13:2 reads: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Nothing could be more accurate. Congregations should attract activity to their basements and classrooms and kitchens: a church building isn’t a wall to keep people inside, but rather a conduit through which God’s work can be done. The wider we keep our doors, the more opportunity we have to entertain God’s angels and further God’s work in the world.

So let’s keep our church buildings open to the myriad works God’s servants can do.


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