I had my fourth Covid vaccine jab the other week. As I waited out my fifteen minutes after the shot, it occurred to me that all four of my shots had taken place in churches, or rather church basements.
Churches are a peculiar kind of location in modern western society. As I walked to the metro station once my fifteen minutes were up, I counted the different kind of places I saw. It seemed there were at least three. First was private residences to which access is deliberately and reasonably restricted. The second was my neighbourhood’s community centre, which is open to all but often only on payment of a fee and often only to certain groups that have the wherewithal to book far enough in advance. The third was businesses, in which access is theoretically granted to all on the assumption that those who enter will contribute to the business’s purpose of making a profit.
A church is like none of these places. It is not profit seeking (though it does need to make money). It’s not (sometimes contrary to popular belief) deliberately restrictive in who can access it. And it is theoretically open to all. The American poet Robert Frost once said that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you.” I’ve often thought—again more often in theory than in fact, regrettably—that this is the kind of place churches are meant to be: when you don’t know what else to do with all the stuff (for lack of a better word) you’ve got inside, a church can be a place to collapse into.
The Covid pandemic rather suddenly dumped a whole lot of stuff onto our societies—including the need to open up a huge number of vaccination clinics. Perhaps it’s not surprisingly that many of these ended up in church basements—and that the clinics in church basements have continued long after those that were held in convention centres and store fronts have closed. It’s the place we turn to when we don’t know what else to do.
Christian ministry is, in part, about the creation of places. These places are not private, controlled, or profit-seeking, but open, receptive, and welcoming. Part of the challenge of Christian ministry these days is that many churches are struggling to keep their places open. And there can be good reason to let go of a beloved place or building. But even if the building is gone, it’s still possible for Christian ministry to be centred on place—and in constructing that place to offer a witness and welcome to the broader society.
This message was written by Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.