[This is a memory from the many decades the author has been privileged to write for daily and weekly newspapers circulating in Western Virginia.]
The – hopefully – waning pandemic is likely to cause leaders in the hundreds of Roanoke and New River Valley congregations to assess the chances of likely growth – or even survival.
For even long-established parishes do die. In my more than 60 years of writing about faith communities in Western Virginia, I’ve seen this happen to a few. Changes in a neighborhood, major construction of highways or other needed public facilities, too many similar congregations nearby can all eat away at the vitality of a house of worship and its members.
This doesn’t mean that people have given up their reliance on God or their care for each other.
It does mean that the more than two years of reduced attendance, even from the Sunday morning worship among other humans, has diminished support. Some have found seeing and hearing worship online as a satisfactory substitute; others, including myself, were just happy to be back nine months into eased restrictions where they could have a hug or feel a gentle touch on their shoulder.
On my Salem street, most residents seem to be at home on Sunday mornings, and since Virginia’s laws were changed around 50 years ago, retail stores are open though perhaps with shorter hours.
Earlier this year Michelle Boorstein wrote in “The Washington Post,” about what has been described as “the Secular Surge.” The gist of this somewhat profound essay is that, while church attendance and identification with a specific denomination are far below what they once were, many people are drawn together by ideas rather than by principles associated with specific faiths.
These include the need for trying to cope with climate change, individual rights for women in the matter of abortion, full acceptance of persons in the LGBTQ communities, interracial marriage, lavish government spending to help racial and religious minorities and other causes often identified with the Democratic Party.
Acceptance of God as a “Higher Power,” the name a Supreme Being is referred to in the popular programs to help the addicted and their loved ones, is also part of the movement away from traditional Sunday morning attendance at a church.
It’s my own view, as a churchgoer, that the incident involving former President Donald Trump in which he stood in front of a notable Washington church to make a political speech as much as any of his other actions revealed his character to enough voters to sink their respect for him.
“Secular” or not, a lot of Americans found the President’s utterances and actions so contrary to what their religion had taught them – likely in a faith community – that they found him untrustworthy.
The challenge then to those responsible to maintaining beautiful old or contemporary-style buildings is how to incorporate the cultural convictions of folk of my granddaughter’s generation into those of mine.
Times change fast when an unexpected disaster such as the COVID illness strikes. Historians and those with long memories may regard as Providential the fact that almost exactly 100 years had passed since the world was affected by what was long known erroneously as “the Spanish Flu” which struck in the fall of 1918 just as World War I was ending in Europe.
In my growing-up years, my mother who reared me could remember how this earlier virus affected a munitions plant near Yorktown in which she briefly worked. She contracted this illness though was not seriously ill. However, nearly a decade later, remnants of the 1918 Pandemic were still around; they caused the near-fatal illness of my maternal aunt and the death of my maternal grandmother in 1927.
In addition, a younger maternal aunt, who had had the flu earlier succumbed at 32 to what appears to have been lingering effects that affected her nervous system.
Looking back to our own times, I wrote many stories of Western Virginia houses of worship being renovated or expanded around 2004, a time of low interest rates and economic expansion before the Great Recession struck three years later. Most of Salem’s long-established congregations had a major building project in that period.
Today, many church leaders realize they overbuilt, for much unused space is found in efficient structures. Faithful but elderly folk offer financial support – before their funerals are held.
It’s a time to look to God who, some will say, is always re-inventing for His purposes.