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Buying an Urban Building Beats Construction
Buying an Urban Building Beats Construction in Harrisburg

When the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, PA, needed more room, it thought it had just one option: a $6- to $8-million-dollar building expansion. That felt a little daunting in this economic climate. And so the congregation, located in an inner-ring suburb of Harrisburg, searched for and found another solution: It bought a second church building, in the center of Harrisburg. The building, built in 1912 and occupied by a dwindling merged United Church of Christ and United Methodist (UCC-UM) congregation, will serve the Unitarian Universalists (UUs) as a second campus.

The purchase agreement allows the UCC-UM congregation, which calls itself “The Shared Ministry,” and which has a thriving social justice ministry in its low-income neighborhood, to continue to use the building and serve the neighborhood. The Unitarian Universalist congregation will join the Shared Ministry in its social justice work and will develop new ministries. The Shared Ministry, which has 30 to 45 active members, and which each month provides clothing and vouchers for food and household items to more than 400 people, plus homework assistance and meals, was about to close its doors because of a lack of money.

The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg (UCH) can seat 120 in its current sanctuary. The Shared Ministry building, with a balcony, choir loft, and pipe organ, can accommodate 400 to 500 at worship. The Rev. Howard Dana, senior minister of UCH, which has 415 members and serves 650, approached the Shared Ministry in October. In November UCH voted to purchase the additional site. The deal will be completed by June 1.

UCH is paying $111,000 for the building and expects to put another $300,000 to $400,000 into it over the next four to five years for an elevator, wiring, and other improvements. “That’s better than having to raise six to eight million,” Dana noted. He said his congregation will hold worship in the “new” building monthly for the first year and hold other services there that would be too large for the suburban building, including youth group sleepovers, forums, concerts, and large weddings and memorial services.

In the second year the plan is to hold weekly UU worship at both sites. The buildings are seven minutes apart. The Shared Ministry congregation will continue to hold its own services in the building. Said Dana, “We told this congregation, ‘We’d like to team with you and have you carry on your ministry and teach us how to be in this neighborhood.’” He added, “If we own the building we’ll approach that neighborhood in an entirely different way.”

“The thing to know about this,” Dana said, “is the only people we are going to save by going into this neighborhood are ourselves. We’re not saving someone else. It’s us becoming involved in a community where we will benefit the most by opening ourselves to people of different color, different immigrant status, and languages. For us, this is a journey of the heart.”

Having two campuses is better than simply moving into the larger building, he said. “If we had decided to just move into Harrisburg it would not work. We’re going to move slowly, use both buildings as is fitting, and see what comes of it. This has created quite a bit of excitement in the congregation. Folks are very hungry to be more involved in the city.” He said the congregation’s suburban building is in an area of shopping malls and hotels and has little connection to the neighborhood. The new building is in an area that experienced “white flight” in the ’60s and ’70s, has a high percentage of people of color and a low percentage of home ownership.

The vote to purchase the building was close: 123 to 101. One hundred and forty others chose not to vote. Some congregations require a supermajority for property purchases like this, but UCH does not. Said Dana, “Not having a supermajority didn’t worry me. This is not so much money that it would bankrupt us if this doesn’t work. If we had to we could sell the building for salvage for more than the purchase price.”

J.D. Stillwater, the president of the congregation, said he was initially cautious about the purchase, “but always excited about the possibilities it brings.” Not requiring a supermajority opened the congregation to “doing things that require courage and are daring,” he said. He said the economy was a big reason for dissenting votes. He is unsure why so many chose not to vote. Not everyone will take to the new building, he acknowledged. “We know there will be some folks who are more comfortable where we are.” He said about 10 percent of the congregation lives in Harrisburg proper.

The purchase of the building will bring cultural challenges, Dana noted. “Some people will be outside their comfort zone. And if someone should get mugged, their car broken into, or offered drugs . . .” A police officer in the congregation is leading “city sense” classes about how to be in a more urban environment. “It’s something we’ve not had to think about when coming to church,” said Dana.

A capital campaign is planned in the next few years to raise money for renovations to the new building and pay off debt on the other building. “The financing that we’re doing for the purchase is essentially a bridge loan to a capital campaign,” he said.

Dana said other congregations and city leaders in Harrisburg are excited about this move. “A couple of city councilmen are thrilled to death. They’re bragging us up.”

Dana said there were two things that allowed the congregation to make this move: its six-year involvement with a downtown homeless shelter and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s antiracism curriculum, “Building the World We Dream About,” which many members of the congregation participated in. “I really believe it opened up the congregation to this possibility, and it may have made the difference in the vote.”

The Shared Ministry had a “leave taking” ceremony in the building, said Dana, even though it will continue to use it. “It was very moving.” The building has been well taken care of, he noted. The merged congregation had even put $52,000 from the sale of the United Methodist parsonage into the church roof in recent years.

For other congregations considering a move like this, Dana recommends contacting small Lutheran or UCC congregations because they, not the denominations, own their buildings outright. The Shared Ministry was the third church building Dana had looked at.

Stillwater said his congregation had a choice. “We could either reach out or hunker down. We chose to reach out. The most exciting things to come are probably things we can’t even imagine yet.”

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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