by James P. Wind

On the weekend before the November elections, two articles appeared side by side on the “On Faith” page (or what old-timers called the Religion page) of The Washington Post. One dealt with new parking regulations in the nation’s capital. The other asked whether faith-based groups could replace FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) . Given the din surrounding the presidential election and the placement of the articles in the Metro section of the Saturday newspaper, I am not sure that many people saw the articles, which is a shame since they crystalized a national debate about the role that religion plays and should play in our lives.

On the left side of the page, the first article, “New Parking Rule Causes Friction” (Hamil H. Harris, The Washington Post, November 3, 2012, p. B2), reported on a new sign in front of the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes, an Episcopal parish that has served Northwest Washington since 1874. The sign stated: “Zone 2 Resident Permit Parking Only, 7AM to Midnight, Monday through Sunday.” The Rev. Lane Davenport, the congregation’s rector, protested both the fact that the sign appeared without any warning to the congregation and the implications of the new rule. “There are a lot of people who come to this church from all over the area to be here on Sunday morning and during the week” who suddenly would have no legal place to park. The article went on to recount that at least a dozen other congregations in the city had discovered similar signs in their neighborhoods.

Parking battles in both cities and suburbs are a sign of the contested value of congregations in our communities. When the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes was founded in the 1870s, neighborhoods were more homogenous. There were no cars and members lived closer to their places of worship. The church’s importance to its neighborhood was more obvious. Those times are gone. As gentrifiers have moved back into Northwest Washington, with their diverse mix of ethnic, social, and religious backgrounds—and most of them with an automobile or two—private goods (my right to park my car close to my house, or my right to belong to an urban congregation but move to the suburbs and commute in for worship) began to become more pressing to more people. The congregation’s self-evident connection to its immediate neighborhood thinned, and a geographic parish had become one metropolitan property owner among many others.

On the other side of the page, in the second article, regular columnist Lisa Miller reported what occurred when Mitt Romney “made a show of donating canned goods, diapers and granola bars via the Red Cross to the victims of [Hurricane] Sandy” (Lisa Miller, “Could Faith-Based Groups Ever Replace FEMA?, The Washington Post, November 3, 2012, p. B2). Governor Romney was trying to demonstrate the power of voluntary, faith-based action. His supporters suggested dismantling FEMA to allow states, congregations, and voluntary associations to step in. Romney’s critics were quick to point out the inefficiencies of his approach—how hard it is to get granola bars purchased in Ohio to devastated families in New Jersey and New York, how much more long-term help is needed to rebuild a community than volunteers with other commitments can provide, how important ready-to-go, massive resources are to pump out subways and restore electric power.

To be sure, Miller lauded the value of the sandwiches hastily prepared by her local temple in Brooklyn for 600 nearby victims of Sandy’s ravages. Congregations often provide immediate help at times of crisis. They raise funds, stimulate local and national connections, and draw on deep reservoirs of compassion and commitment that undergird longer-term public and private responses. They are in their own ways indispensable. But they cannot meet the challenges of a Sandy-sized catastrophe all by themselves. And, if we look closely, we see that they do not really work that way. Yes, many congregations have their own projects and programs. But many of them are in partnership with a host of agencies and institutions ranging from Catholic Charities to Lutheran Social Services to the federal government. They do some of their most important work incognito, as one congregation member influences a board of directors of a social service agency, while another writes a large check for the Red Cross, and another climbs a telephone poll to repair a downed wire.

So which is it? Have congregations so little to offer to their communities that parking places take precedence over their activities? Or are faith communities so important to human survival that we need to give them all the space and support they need?

Answering those questions is important work for those who lead congregations, those who depend upon them, and those who live near them. Part of the challenge is that no one knows how much congregations contribute to human wellbeing. Glimpses of answers are present in anecdotes, annual reports, and the occasional human interest story. Here and there, researchers have sought to track the value of the social services offered to local communities. Once in a while we get a glimpse of the bigger picture, for example when Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 66) that “faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America.” He estimated that our churches and synagogues supplied “at least half” of the relational infrastructure that makes our nation work.

But such glimpses do not overcome the fact none of us, not the busy parish pastor, the neighbor fuming over not being to find a parking place, the presidential candidate suggesting that faith-based communities could help render FEMA obsolete, know what congregations really do. So we underestimate and try to legislate congregations into smaller and smaller spaces in our lives. Or we overestimate and think that they can do everything. There is a better way—learning what they are doing, what they can do, what they cannot do and then working with them.  

Congregations Magazine, 2013-01-09
Number 4