What would you do if you had $100 million? I bet most of us could come up with a use for $1 or $2 million easily (donate to charity, buy a house, send our future children to college), but $100 million? It’s unfathomable. And yet, as most Americans grasp for jobs and salaries in this economy, an elite few are swimming in money—hundreds of millions of dollars of it. One of those is Trinity Wall Street, a massive, historic Episcopal church in lower Manhattan that owns 14 acres of New York City real estate.
Naturally a church with such a gargantuan income stream has invited a wide assortment of controversy and criticism over the years, and you can read all about that online. But frankly, religious groups get enough bad press these days, so, being an interfaith activist and a person of faith, I prefer to highlight the instances where religion serves as a force for good. When you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal, you darn well better do something good with it, and here’s one solid and impactful thing Trinity did: they created a space where everyone was truly welcome.
It’s called “Charlotte’s Place” and the idea is simple yet transformative. Charlotte’s Place is essentially an open-door community center, but instead of just drawing children to an after school program, or seniors to a free lunch program, they draw everyone into a flexible and welcoming space. (Interesting fact: Charlotte’s Place actually grew out of a need that Trinity recognized when it found itself entangled with the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years back.)
The Financial District (where Charlotte’s Place is located) is a confluence of high-powered Wall Street employees, wandering tourists (mostly visiting the World Trade Center memorial) and homeless people. Charlotte’s Place serves them all. Businessmen and women can eat their lunches in the sunlit community room without having to pay for an overpriced sandwich and fight a hundred other customers for space in some meager dining area. Tourists can stop in to use the free wifi and rest their legs for a bit without having to buy a coffee at Starbucks. Homeless people can use the clean, spacious bathrooms without drawing looks from department store employees or being kicked out by a manager. All are welcome at Charlotte’s Place.
The space is mostly devoted to one large, tiered room—a renovated storefront that had previously just been church storage. It’s wide windows let in copious sunlight and invite passersby to see what’s going on inside, while smaller rooms in the back provide space for meetings and classes. One of the most exciting features of Charlotte’s place is the art blossoming all over its walls. What started as a mostly blank canvas is gradually being filled with media like mosaics, collages and paper cranes—all created by community members. Overall, Charlotte’s Place has an attractive, modern feel while still offering more intimate spaces to chat with a friend or find some peace and quiet.
On any given day at Charlotte’s Place, you might find a college student working on a paper, children reading books with their parents in the mini library, a free yoga class in the afternoon and a free movie screening with pizza at night. Charlotte’s Place attempts to meet the needs it recognizes in all of the people who use it space. Staff members connect homeless visitors with housing counseling, screen for SNAP eligibility, provide free lunches and even help arrange transportation for low-income people to get to doctors appointments. (For a complete list of services, click here).
I came to Charlotte’s Place for a community gathering a couple weeks ago and within minutes of being there, I thought to myself, “Yes. This is exactly what I’d do if I had millions of dollars.” Now, this ministry is still new (and I’d love to see it expand its hours) but it is such a promising start. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted something better for my city only to be confronted with the insurmountable cost that it would take to implement that idea. It’s refreshing to watch an organization with money do something transformative and progressive with that wealth, especially when it is so well-situated to serve its community.
Houses of worship are practically the definition of grassroots, and they’ve been active in their communities for centuries. All around us, synagogues quietly serve weekly meals to their hungry neighbors, Mosques birth movements for racial justice inside their back meeting halls, Buddhist temples offer true relief for the weary on all walks of life, and so on.
Most of these religious institutions stand by a mission of welcoming and they avoid proselytizing their guests, but they also maintain their faith-based roots. For example, Charlotte’s Place attempts to provide a meditative, calming presence in one of the busiest neighborhoods in the country. What a blessing for the neighborhood to have this space for all of its members to come together and get what they need.
All photos from Charlotte’s Place Facebook page