You’d be hard-pressed to find a city without a church, and if your city is bigger than about 10,000 people, you could hunt a little and find the Buddhist meditation center, the synagogue and the mosque too. (Add 40,000 and you’re looking at Hindu temples, Bahaii centers, new religious movements and more.) Some of these buildings fit seamlessly against the facades of the neighboring structures. They seem a part of their surroundings, standing unobtrusively behind shady trees.
Others draw immediate attention to themselves. They thrust their spires high across the skyline of the city. Their domes arch heavenward like the backs of gargantuan elephants, visible from miles away.
Most of these houses of worship force us to look up, even if only a little bit. Often they lend a moment of quiet solitude within a bustling city as they open their doors during the day to passersby. Usually they serve meals to the hungry or provide emergency shelter to homeless families. They allow AA groups and Girl Scout troops to meet inside their walls. Sometimes they share their space with other religious communities, as seen in these photos of a building that advertised Presbyterian worship on one side and Shabbat services on the other.
On site at accidents and disasters, houses of worship support those in need through unique assets: gathering spaces, kitchens, sanctuaries and most of all, ready hands to serve. After the Boston bombings, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, fires, floods, shootings, people of faith were and are the speedy responders that help wherever they’re needed.
I’m writing this as someone who grew up in a faith tradition and who believes in the power of religious communities to advance causes of justice, in spite of the negative impact that religion can also have on the world. Having worked for a number of faith-based organizations (including the nonprofit I just started working for earlier this month) I recognize their immense potential to serve those in need and give voices to those who are not often heard. Faith compels them forward.
I know that for some people, a steeple in the midst of a city represents backwards attitudes and close-minded politics, but I continue to see churches, synagogues, mosques and temples as places where activists are gathering to change the world. They are friends, teachers, protesters, cooks, caretakers, politicians, rabbis, imams, brothers, sisters. Whether they quietly stack cans in a church basement soup kitchen every Saturday morning or shout their anger against economic injustice at rallies in a synagogue parking lot, people of faith can be found working for justice throughout their cities. A house of worship is a grounding place that calls them to action and commissions them to serve.