Last Sunday morning a group of about a dozen participated in a quiet protest. A few passersby asked questions, some gave a thumbs-up and at least one gave a thumbs-down as she walked into church. Others honked as they passed, and I took that as supportive. Most walked past while avoiding eye-contact. The priests smiled and spoke in friendly fashion as they entered the 10:30 service at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
If you follow downtown Knoxville news at all you know the purpose of the small, last-minute event: St. John’s Episcopal Church owns two buildings adjacent to the church which have stood at their address on Walnut Street for ninety years. They’ve served as businesses and residences, often at the same time. It’s a quiet street, the buildings bounded by a Federal Building, the church another office building and the library across the street.
Behind the building sits just over fifty surface parking lots which were created by the destruction of buildings a generation ago. Now these two buildings are endangered because the church desires about five more parking spaces and a drop off which they feel will be better than the one they have. The congregation consists primarily of commuters, though I did notice one neighbor entering who had walked about four blocks to church.
In fact, I watched as parishioners parked in the U.S. Postal Service parking lot, in front of no-parking signs on Walnut and in the pay lot across Church Street from their own lot. I didn’t notice if they paid. I didn’t see anyone walking from the Locust Street Garage located two blocks to the north which is free on weekends. It was nearly empty when I passed by.
The fact that parking, legal and otherwise, sits in every direction from the church is only one reason that this push to destroy these buildings confounds me. It would seem that if the church can’t find a good use for them, such as housing for those in need or office space for organizations helping the poor, or simply can’t afford to repair them, they would allow someone else to take the burden.
An offer was made to do just that. They refused to sell the buildings. They refused to allow a local developer to lease the buildings and renovate them at his own expense. They refuse to wait until they are prepared to create the drop-off and spaces. They simply want the buildings down.
What confounds me even more about the decision is the short-sighted view they seem to be taking of the future of their church. The congregation is aging. Most of them likely drive in to this particular church because that’s where they’ve always attended. But what happens when that generation is gone? Will others really drive in from surrounding areas? Where would those future parishioners likely be found?
The answer, of course, is that they will be found living all around the church. Downtown has a booming population that the church seems resolutely determined to ignore. The vast majority of people who live downtown choose to do so because, among other reasons, it is old. We could live in new homes out west, but we don’t want to. People don’t move to or visit downtown to marvel at the excellent surface parking lots, but they often comment on the charm of the old buildings. Take them away and everything good happening downtown may well drift away with them.
So, we are calling on the leadership or membership of St. John’s to display a little grace. To love their neighbors and do the right thing. Yes, they have the power and the legal right to destroy these buildings, but why not give that next generation of potential members a reason to feel good about your church rather than remembering it as the last in a long line of churches that destroyed another piece of the community?
A gathering will be held on Sunday morning at 9:45. It will end by 10:45 and it promises to be much bigger than the hardy dozen that gathered last week. Steven Horton from the 100 Block will be in charge of the event as I will not be able to attend this weekend. Please make signs, invite your neighbors and join the Facebook Event. And most of all, gather on the sidewalk at the appointed time across from the church.
If you haven’t signed the online petition, please do so; over 300 people have made that statement. There will likely be petition signatures gathered on Market Square and in Krutch Park this Saturday. If you want to help with that contact Andrea Monk at firstname.lastname@example.org. She could easily use several people. Write letters to the church, to Metro Pulse and to the News Sentinel. Talk to any members you know.
Will this work? I don’t know. Odds are against it, but if we keep the right attitude and simply ask for grace, maybe our prayers will be answered. It’s all we’ve got.