First it was the Bay Ridge Methodist Church (the “Green Church,” where I was baptized), now it’s the Bay Ridge Jewish Center and possibly Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. What’s next — St. Anselm’s parking lot? Trinity Lutheran on Third Avenue? All are selling or considering selling their properties. Why is this happening? Are they greedy and looking to make a killing in the inflated real estate market? What is the reaction of the Bay Ridge community?
First, these institutions are not greedy and trying to make a killing. They are religious organizations that have served the community for years (and provided services exceeding the taxes they were exempted from) trying to follow their callings in serving their God and downsizing to live in their means.
Is the Bay Ridge community sympathetic to their plight? No these institutions are being treated as criminals who are robbing the bank. Demonstrations, letters to the editor and politicians looking to stop their plans and thus kill them as institutions are the response by some members of the community.
How did this happen? If one looks back at Bay Ridge’s history to when these institutions were flourishing say 1920, you will find that Bay Ridge had a population of a little less than 100,000 and each of the churches had about 400 members. They were able to build buildings, heat and maintain them and pay for a full-time pastor or rabbi and staff. Sunday Schools boomed and on Anniversary Day (Brooklyn Day to some) Fourth Avenue was closed for the parade of Sunday Schools and floats.
What happened? Did people leave Bay Ridge and it become a ghost town? Hardly, the 2000 population was 122,542 and with the current building boom is probably even higher. What happened is people abandoned their faith and their God. The same organizations now struggle with 40 members and the inability to pay for heat, maintenance or a staff. A once grateful people are no longer “one nation under God” but has become a nation that only looks for God when something goes wrong.
Great jobs with great salaries and what they can buy is not from God but from what ‘I’ have done. Thanks doesn’t need to be given to God but to ME and what I have done. People only look to God when something goes wrong. 9/11 or an unexplained death leads to “why did God do this?” What has happened to the people who used to fill these churches? Do they come to get married? No.
Destination weddings in the Bahamas or Key West on a beach are where couples go to get married. Church is only considered if the bride’s gown looks better coming down the aisle than on the beach or the priest says we don’t do beach weddings. Do these couples come back to have their children baptized? Maybe for that Sunday but, like 9/11 or after the Pope’s death, it’s for that Sunday only. Do these couples bring their children to Sunday School? No because they have soccer or baseball practice or there’s a sale at the mall.
Instead of picketing or writing letters, the community should find the buyer that wants to make the “Green Church” into an arts center. Better yet, come and worship our God who has given us so much. Fill these churches and contribute to their work. Then we won’t have to worry about who’s next or what will replace the church. Instead we’ll have to put folding chairs in the aisle of the Green Church like my mother remembers them doing in the past.
Robert E. Adamski, PE, FASCE, BCEE is the vice president of Gannett Fleming, Inc, and an Elder at the Bay Ridge United Church (PCUSA, RCA)