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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Urban Presbytarians

Went among the Presbyterians today, the 2nd Presbyterian Church of Richmond that is. They are among the residual churches still standing in downtown Richmond. As with most cities, middle class residents migrated away from downtown after WWII. This migration turned into a full scale evacuation in the tumult of the 60's. Drug use, street crime and integration mixed with the lure of suburbia to drive the urban core towards collapse. Handsome neighborhoods and stately homes fell into decay. One fed upon another creating a vicious cycle. The worse these neighborhoods became, the less ordinary people wanted to live, work or shop there, in turn business closed, crime rose and almost anybody who could leave, did. Historic downtown churches, provide a unique exception to this. While the congregants have long since moved away, many retain emotional ties to the once thriving and influential churches of their childhoods. These were the churches where the movers and shakers of the city worshipped. Some (in)famous and remarkable people were among the congregations, writes, warriors, politicians and businessmen. Such a legacy is not easily abandoned. Not only this, but many of these churches reflect the architectural traditions of a different era. Many of them reflect expert craftsmanship and old world artistry not commonly found today. I am embarking on a modest effort to visit these churches, meet the members and appreciate what still remains of another era. Some of these churches are on their last legs, some are grimly hanging on and others, God willing (hmmm?), may live to serve a new generation of urban migrants who have moved back to the city. It remains to be seen how many of these new residents will be attracted to these old line congregations. These congregations are aging rapidly and their children don't have the emotional ties that their parents do. Some will attend while they are young out of obligation to their parents. Many, if not most will either connect with churches closer to their homes or just drift away into the sea of disbelief that surrounds us today. It's not like I can preach. I have grown up and grown away from the church of my childhood, not just physically, but spiritually and intellectually. Never the less I recognize that churches, these and others, provide a cultural and social center that helps glue people together and I am glad that there remains a bit of this in the downtown that I call home. These are people with collective and individual memories of a time when downtowns thrived and were the cultural, commercial and retail centers of the community. That memory is virtually unknown to generations that have grown up in the safety and seclusion of cul de sacs and subdivisions. This removal is moving into it's 3rd generation now. Fewer and fewer people have a recollection of a time when people lived in communities and were gracious to their neighbors. It is my hope to harvest some of this bygone civility before it disappears forever.


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