Worship At Home
Small Group Reflection of 06-14-20

 

In these days of social distancing we have endeavored to provide a Corpus Christi online worship experience. The Worship At Home web page has been our attempt to provide that. One of the ways our community has used this resource has been to gather virtually in real time using video conferencing software like FaceTime, Skype, Messenger, and Zoom. In an effort to hold onto our deep liturgical roots, one virtual group has gone to the point of having rotating presiders, lectors, and even homilists. The reflections provided by the members of this group have often been very inspiring. In an effort to share these reflections with the larger community several of them have been collected and published here on the CC website.

Reflection from 06-14-20, provided by Erin Que.

 


My reflection today is mostly about sacred space and a little about architectural history. Photographs are my own unless otherwise noted.

What is the first place that comes to mind when you hear the term “sacred space”? It could be a specific place, or a general type of place. There is no right or wrong answer.

[Some ideas: nature, mountains, church, the old Corpus Christi sanctuary, your backyard, The Grotto at Notre Dame, your home, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, our Corpus sanctuary]

Two weeks ago, I visited the intersection of 38th and Chicago in South Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered. I approached from the south along Chicago Avenue. The intersection was closed to traffic for at least a block in any direction. About a half-block south, a banner spans the street with the following messages: “Sacred Space,” “Abolish the Police,” and I believe “Justice 4 George Floyd.” I was surprised to see this term “Sacred Space” used here, when for the most part, I had only heard architectural historians say it. Or perhaps, those are the only voices that stuck.

Let’s leave South Minneapolis for a moment to consider what is sacred space.

The word “sacred” as defined by Merriam Webster means:

1) dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity
2) worthy of religious veneration
3) of or relating to religion

I’ve selected the answers that best support the arguments I will make, however, my assumption is that these are also the most common understandings or uses of the word. To put it simply, “sacred” refers to something important and most often is related to religion.

Following that argument, sacred space therefore would mean places of or for worship.

If you asked me the same question I asked you, these would be my top answers:

St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville:


(Photo credit: Saint John’s Abbey)

It’s a total architectural marvel. The bell tower looks like a ship sail, or kind of reminds me of the effect of Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame. The concrete honeycomb façade is filled with beautiful stained glass. You can’t find this anywhere else.

The interior is a bit foreboding, with its cold concrete forms, but also awe-inspiring the way the altar is illuminated and emphasized with the plane suspended from the ceiling (I think for acoustics). You can tell that something important happens here and with the suspended cross, you know that it’s religious.

My other answers would be St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome:


(Photo credit: Tekton Ministries, LLC)

or the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul:


(Photo credit: Asia Times via Wikimedia)

Both massive stone buildings, with huge domes; ornate, gilded decoration; and religious iconography. You are small compared to the overwhelming presence and power of the divine. My natural instinct, maybe like yours, was to think of churches. Specifically, very impressive churches that clearly convey that important rituals happen within.

So what makes a space sacred? Is it the physical boundary? The actions performed by humans within? The objects/images specific to a religion?

How can the intersection of 38th and Chicago be a sacred space? It is not a church, it doesn’t even have walls or a ceiling.

When I arrived at the intersection, I first gravitated toward the now infamous mural on the south side of Cup Foods. A Black teenager was performing in front of the mural, with his fist raised. People quietly paid their respects, laid down flowers, and observed.

In the middle of the intersection, there was a large circle formed by bouquets of flowers. No one dared cross through the middle. At each corner, there were people grilling food and music was playing. To the north, a demonstration or protest was underway. People were moving through the intersection with wagons, distributing food and snacks to anyone who needed them. It was both loud and quiet.

This was not a coordinated religious experience nor was there evidence of any one specific religion. This place does not have a physical boundary that contains it. But the actions of humans indeed made this place sacred, not just by outright declaring it such, but through the ways in which they inhabited the space. During the curfews, I heard multiple news media refer to the intersection as a sanctuary. A place where anyone and everyone was welcome. A place spared and protected from further violence after Floyd’s murder. A place that brought and brings people together, restoring some faith in humanity. With a ring of flowers as an altar, this place is dedicated to service and worship, and worthy of veneration, but not necessarily related to religion. Today, the community continues to call it a Sacred Site and they’ve posted guidelines for visitors to experience the site with respect toward the community [see attachment].

It has been 14 weeks since I was last at Corpus Christi, like many of you. I was initially indifferent to the thought of virtual church and wasn’t sure that I needed it. But it has become an important part of my week because of the community that shows up and the perspectives that have been shared. In many ways, this Zoom call for me is a sacred space and I think I have gotten more out of these virtual gatherings than through years of physically going to church. Most Sundays I admittedly just go through the motions and use Mass as a chance to check in with loved ones whom I don’t see the rest of the week. But here, in this virtual space, perhaps because we mute the outside noise and each other, I can hear myself speak and sing, I can focus more closely on what others are saying, and I can more fully engage in the practice.

Here, we have been able to alter our concept of church and widen the voices through which the divine may speak. We have changed the system that we knew well and created something new. We know that returning to normal is not going to be possible, and we’ve tested a new way forward. I’m certainly not saying that we should get rid of all the churches, but rather look at what happens when we think outside the box.

So this is where I segue a little bit into my work. As an architectural historian, my job is to study the built environment, to understand how and why buildings were built, to interpret what they tell us about our history, and to identify places of historical importance. I’ve been thinking a lot about how will we preserve this moment in our history? My professional instinct is to designate the intersection of 38th and Chicago as a historic site, to ensure that it is recognized in the permanent record. But the permanent record itself is flawed and biased against Black voices and stories. Generally, to list something on the National Register of Historic Places, which is basically the country’s list of what is important, the place has to be 50 years old. So in this case, we’d need to wait until 2070, 50 years after the important event happened. There is an exception to the rule, but even then the exception doesn’t usually get applied until after 30 years.

I have had trouble finding precedents for this situation. Generally, we don’t like confronting the uglier parts of our histories. While studying at the University of Virginia, it took until the 2010s for the University to really publicly acknowledge that it was built and maintained by enslaved laborers. Buildings associated with African American and non-white history make up a small percentage of the properties listed on the National Register. This is in part because places important to African Americans have by and large been erased. Think about the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, literally split by the construction of I-94. This happened in most if not all major cities across the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Contributions by African Americans in the field of architecture have likely been underreported or honestly don’t exist because the field is not very diverse. Moreover, for centuries, African American stories have been left out of the narrative. So research will not uncover their stories if they were never documented, leading to the conclusion that a place has no importance.

I don’t have an obvious solution, but it is clear that this framework needs to change. On an individual level, I can question my sources, dig deeper, and advocate for change. I know city, state, and community leaders are considering how to honor this Sacred Site at 38th and Chicago. Ideas include a traffic roundabout, a peace garden, and a physical memorial. I don’t know how the community would feel about historic designation, but here are the avenues with which I am most familiar. The National Register may seem somewhat frivolous, but it can lead to funding for preservation efforts and it’s one way to ensure that this place and this moment won’t be forgotten in 50 years. The State could declare the intersection a State Historic Site, joining the ranks of Fort Snelling, the State Capitol, Itasca Headwaters, and James J. Hill House, to name a few. While the full list acknowledges site important to American Indian history, I don’t think any of them are tied to African American history (but I need to fact-check that). Minneapolis could declare the intersection a local landmark, which would offer the most protection if some day down the road, someone wants to tear down Cup Foods. Minneapolis has 175 individual landmarks, among which there are at least a few associated with African American history (but again I need to fact-check the number, my guess is African American sites are still underrepresented).

It is critical that we question the systems that we understand to be true. That we find the sacred in the every day. That we recognize that the systems themselves are biased. And sometimes we might need to throw the system out and start anew.

 

[Author’s Note and Update: It is critical that the community has a voice in what happens to the site. And it will take time for us to more fully understand this moment and its place in history. In July, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the City of Minneapolis an African American Cultural Heritage Action Grant to document this moment in our history and uncover missing stories from the past. The details of the grant have not yet been released.]