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Suburban congregation bought downtown church for second service
Suburban Congregation Bought Downtown Church for Second Service

The 9 and 11 a.m. services at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, PA, are 4.3 miles apart. At 9 a.m. part of the congregation gathers at the church’s longtime suburban location on Clover Lane, tucked in between a housing tract and two hotels. Then at 11 a.m. a larger part of the congregation gathers for worship at a big, old, red brick church building on Market Street near downtown Harrisburg. The congregation bought the building three years ago to relieve overcrowding at its suburban building. At a price of $111,000 plus $340,000 for renovations, it was a better deal than the congregation’s other prospect—raising six to eight million for a new building.

In May the congregation completed nine months of holding weekly services in both buildings—and nine months of deep engagement with its new neighborhood. In addition to the overcrowding issue, a desire to do more social justice work was a big reason for buying the building, said the Rev. Howard Dana, the church’s senior minister.

“In the past year we’ve had a hundred times more social justice opportunities than were happening three years ago,” he said. “People wanted this and they’re putting amazing energy into the neighborhood. There was a pent up desire to do mission-based work. We opened that gate and people flooded into the city to do that work.”

Dana said about 75 to 100 people from the 415-member congregation attend the suburban service. One hundred fifty to two hundred attend the urban one. The two services are identical, but feel very different, he said. “The earlier service is quieter, more introspective, and the eleven o’clock is livelier.”

Not everyone in the congregation agreed with the decision to buy the urban building. There have been deep, heartfelt, and sometimes difficult conversations about the acquisition, Dana said.

The vote in 2009 to buy the building was 123 to 101. There are congregants who were upset the bylaws only required a simple majority, not a two-thirds vote, to buy property. “The not great part of all this is that I am doing a lot of pastoral work with the folks who are unhappy,” said Dana. “There are days when my life is consumed with being a peacemaker or with trying to bring people along. Nothing is harder than trying to lead a congregation in a different direction.”

The Allison Hill neighborhood in which the urban building is located has a fairly high crime rate. One source this spring named Harrisburg as the twentieth most dangerous city in the United States. “We’re definitely in the inner city,” said Dana. “It’s not a neighborhood that’s being gentrified.” That point was brought home in March when a taxi driver was shot and killed in front of the church one Sunday morning while a service was underway.

The shooting brought conversations about the purchase out in the open, said Dana. “There had been some fairly unhealthy underground conversations among some of our members for a couple of years. The shooting brought them out where we could address them. That was almost a relief.” Dana notes that most of the crime in the area happens between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Dana said half a dozen households have left the church. “And we may lose a few more.” On the plus side, the congregation gained about 40 members in the past three years. It is the only Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Harrisburg area. Founded in 1927, it has been at its suburban location since 1961 and has never before had an urban location. The urban building, which was built in 1912 and will seat 400 to 500 for worship, can hold the entire congregation. The suburban building holds around 120. Photos of both can be seen on the congregation’s website. Photos taken during an event at Clover Lane are here, and photos at Market Street are here.

Dana wrote in the congregation’s March newsletter about some of the changes the purchase has brought about:

The Market Street church has changed UCH, mostly in positive ways. And this change has made some of us angry. It has made some of us scared. It is hard to see the church you joined change. It is frightening to embrace a new mission among people you don’t know and may not understand. It is confusing to see some of your friends relish this new direction and others resent it. If the vote to buy the Market Street church had failed, different people would have felt frightened, misunderstood, and resentful. That would have changed UCH, too.

The move into the city has energized his ministry, said Dana. “I’ve always been clear that I wanted to serve a UU church where it really mattered.” The congregation bought the downtown building from a merged United Church of Christ–United Methodist congregation. That congregation—about twenty people on a Sunday—continues to meet in the building, as a condition of the purchase. It has long had an active social justice ministry in the neighborhood, which it is continuing; the Unitarian church has become a partner in that.

Dana said about 35 members of his congregation help feed up to 300 people at a monthly community breakfast at the church. They’re involved with a community garden across from the church and help with English language classes, and they participate in “Community Hours” three times a week, helping neighborhood residents in a variety of ways, such as teaching them to read, helping them navigate city bureaucracy, or simply listening.

“There are two dozen programs that are going on through our city church that we were not doing three years ago,” said Dana. “Now there is energy. It’s work that really matters. It’s practical; it’s relational; people feel really good about doing it. It’s about working with someone you haven’t met yet.”

There is an interfaith quality to the work, as well. On the church’s urban block are a black Baptist church, a Latino Catholic church, and a Muslim congregation. “We’re partnering with each of them in some way,” Dana said. “Sharing a street corner makes all the difference. They watch out for us and we for them. They use our building when they need more space. And we’re all working together to get the drug dealers off the corner.”

The energy around the urban building begs the question of whether someday the congregation might sell its suburban building and just be an urban church. “We’re not going to ask that question at this point,” says Dana. “At the moment we can afford both.”

He acknowledged that it’s sometimes a stretch for the staff to hold two services, two religious education programs, and two musical presentations each Sunday in different locations even though the buildings are only about seven minutes apart.

He said when he talks to other UU ministers the comments range from admiration to “Y’all are just crazy.” He said he knows of no other UU congregations that have similar suburban-urban situations, but he predicted there may be more. “In the next ten years there will be literally thousands of mainline church buildings that come on the market, as those congregations continue to decline in size. There will be opportunities to buy stunning inspirational spaces rather than having to convert a storefront.”

Something else to think about is that once a congregation like Harrisburg buys an inner city building it may not be able to resell it. “If things were to go badly,” said Dana, “there would probably be no next buyer for this building.”

J.D. Stillwater was president when the congregation voted to buy the building. He acknowledged becoming “burned out” toward the end of his term and withdrawing for a time after his term was up because of the many strong opinions about the purchase. He said, “Was it a good thing to do to buy the building? I lean toward yes, but the ultimate outcome is yet to be seen. I see wonderful things happening in both buildings.”

Kate Newton, a Harrisburg member since 2003 with her husband and two young daughters, has embraced the urban ministry. “It’s been a great opportunity for me and my family to work directly with a socioeconomic group that I’ve never really had direct interactions with. My nine-year-old and I have had some really great conversations on the way home from church about why most people who live around the church are black and why so many are poor.”

She added, “It did make me nervous at first to go there. I wondered if people would consider me a do-gooder. But I’ve had very rewarding conversations with people. Rather than coming in and doing a project for a day and then leaving, I’ve been able to really connect with people.”

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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