by Betsy Phillips, UMR Special Contributor
At the beginning of October, Historic Nashville Inc. named the five-story office building that houses the United Methodist Publishing House one of Nashville’s nine most threatened historical buildings. The group hopes to find some way to preserve the building, which the United Methodist Church is currently selling to a developer.
In the press release Historic Nashville put out announcing the building’s endangered status, they said, “Considered by many to be cold and unappealing, this style [mid-century modern] is representative of the optimism that followed the end of World War II for a better and brighter America.” “Cold and unappealing” pretty much sums up the UMPH building. It’s a bland gray box.
I will say this for it. It looks secure—impenetrable, solid, sturdy, self-contained. And I’m sure that for people who had lived through World War II, many of whom who had seen first-hand what people will do to the vulnerable among them, who witnessed how easily an unrelenting war machine can pulverize buildings of brick and wood, who saw how whole cities full of old buildings so easily crumble, buildings that look indestructible, that look like places you can be safe in, must have looked better and brighter than what came before.
It isn’t an optimism borne of “things will be better.” It’s an optimism of “we are better able to protect ourselves than our parents and grandparents were.” It’s an optimism rooted in fear, not hope.
Let me switch tracks for a second. I want to tell you about the moment when I knew I couldn’t be a church-going person anymore. I was in a United Methodist church and the pastor asked us to stand and greet one another. He then instructed the members of the congregation to be welcoming to the visitors—of which I was one. The people around me were very open and seemed genuinely excited that I was there. And then, two of them leaned over to me.
One said, “We’re so glad you’re here. You should know, though, that the pastor isn’t very good.”
“But,” the other one chimed in, “we’re looking to get rid of him, so don’t judge the church by him.”
Looking back on this, I can see how they thought they were being welcoming. They had identified a problem they were afraid might put people off and they were letting guests know they were working on solving it.
They had no way of knowing that my father is a United Methodist minister, no way of knowing that they were merely the latest in a long line of people who made comments about their terrible pastor where I could overhear them. Only this time, the pastor wasn’t my dad or the father of one of my friends. He was some stranger to me, whose children sat in a pew with their mother like I’d done every Sunday of my childhood. Did his young daughter hear us? The thought of it mortified me. Because I knew exactly what hearing that kind of stuff about your own parent does to a person.
And, on the one hand, it was a great relief to know that every congregation has someone in it who doesn’t like the pastor and isn’t discrete about who she tells. On the other hand, I just knew, then, that I couldn’t do it—continue to go to church, continue to be a part of it. Be complicit in trying to do other pastors and their families what people had tried to do to us.
Maybe that makes me a coward, for not staying and trying to fix things. I genuinely believe people are broken. And I believe, because I have seen it, the good work the Church can do with broken people.
But I swear, sometimes I think the Church represents words like “welcoming” or, more importantly, “love” the way Mid-Century Modern architecture represented “optimism”—not based in something vulnerable and open, but based in a “here’s how to keep safe” attitude. You love in cold and unappealing ways and then, when the people you are “loving” tell you they don’t recognize your love as love, you have all these great justifications, many of them Biblical, for why that is.
The truth is, though, that usually your love doesn’t feel like love because it’s rooted in fear.
And mine, too. Let me be honest about that. A lot of times, my love is rooted in fear. But I’m not claiming that a fear-based life is compatible with the teachings of Jesus, who says “Be not afraid” more often than he says anything else.
I won’t miss the gray box UMPH building when it’s torn down. It’s an unfortunate monument to a bad impulse in people and a terrible impulse in a Church—wanting to be safe more than wanting to be open. But it could be that when we wonder why we can’t be a whole community—the people who are actively Methodist and the people who grew up Methodist but aren’t anymore—that building is as good an explanation as there is.