Baptists and Catholics (almost) Together in Birmingham

This June Baptists and Roman Catholics will hold major conventions at at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), separately. There are two national meetings of Baptists and a diocesan meeting of Catholics. While the meetings are not at the same time, it will be unusual to have a trio of major religious meetings in the same complex in the same month.

The national meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will be held at the BJCC in the middle of June and at the end of the month the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham celebrate its fiftieth anniversary by holding its first-ever Eucharistic Congress in complex. I expect this is the first time Birmingham has seen so many major religious gatherings in one month.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the first group to meet. Its annual Pastor’s Conference is June 9 & 10. This is followed immediately by the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 11 & 12. The Pastor’s Conference is free and open to the public.

This will be the first time that the SBC’s annual meeting has been held in Birmingham since 1941. According to a 2010 study, Alabama was second only to Mississippi in the percentage of people who were adherents of Southern Baptist churches (29.1%, Mississippi was 30.5%). This helps explain why the SBC has not meet here, many recent meetings have been in cities where Southern Baptists are not numerous so that Baptists can use the opportunity to bring their witness to that city. Other meetings have been in Southern cities with better transportation connections than Birmingham.

Over all this is the forth time the SBC annual meeting has been in Birmingham. The other meetings occurred in 1891 and 1931. The 1891 meeting is memorialized by a sidewalk marker at the northwest corner of First Avenue North and Eighteenth Street. The marker commemorates the creation at that meeting of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources.

The convention met in O’Brien’s Opera House which was located on this corner. The auditorium was built in 1882. It operated for almost thirty years before being closed in 1911. Four years later it was razed. and razed in 1915. Some of its bricks were reused to build a gymnasium at what is now the University of Montevallo (“O’Brien’s Opera House,” Bham Wiki). The opera house’s former site is now a parking lot.


Marker in the sidewalk on the northwest corner of 1st Ave. N. and 18th St., Birmingham, Alabama, February 2018. Photo: David R. Bains

The week following the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will hold its General Assembly from June 17 to 21. The CBF was formed in 1991 by Baptist churches dissatisfied with the way the Southern Baptist Convention had been transformed by conservatives over the preceding fifteen years. It is unusual for the CBF to meet in the same city as the SBC. I am not sure how they both ended up in Birmingham this year. The CBF has been to Birmingham twice before, in 1999 and 2003.

Just a week after the CBF assembly ends, the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama of the Roman Catholic Church will hold its first Eucharistic Congress on June 28 & 29. The event will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the diocese. It was separated from the diocese of Mobile on June 28, 1969. It is a significant date because June 29 is the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Saint Paul is the patron saint of the Birmingham diocese. With June 29 falling on a Saturday in this anniversary year, it is an ideal time for the celebration.

The schedule for the congress has not been released, but the dioceses’s Alex Kubik explains eucharistic congresses typically “include a procession with the Eucharist in a public setting, a significant amount of time for Eucharistic Adoration, significant availability of the sacrament of reconciliation, talks and catechisis on important matters of faith, and a Holy Mass with the bishop or bishops with all in attendance.” The announced speakers include the papal nuncio to the United States, the bishop of St. Augustine, Florida, and Scott Hahn, a popular Catholic professor and author.

The theme for the congress is “The Eucharist and Missionary Discipleship.” While Alabama is #2 in terms of Southern Baptist affiliation, it is #46 in Catholic affiliation among the fifty states. Only 4.2% of Alabama residents were adherents of the Catholic church according to the 2010 study. This helps explain the missionary theme. Of course in terms of overall religiousness, Alabama is a national leader. In 2010 it had the third highest rate of religious adherents among its residents, trailing only Utah and North Dakota. So if the number of Catholics grow here, it may well be that other groups, such as Baptists decline. It will be interesting to see if any of these meetings leave a lasting mark on the city.

National Prayer Breakfast Site was Almost a Church

For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.

In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.

Aerial view of "Oak Lawn," Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton Hotel.

Aerial view of “Oak Lawn,” Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton hotel. Photographed between 1909 and 1932. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/97505334/

Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.

National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.

Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.

Proposal for National Presbyterian Church c. 1955, Adams & Woodbridge, Mills, Petticord, & Mills, Architects. Collection of National Presbyterian Church.

The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.

The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.

Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.

With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.

International Church of Cannabis

Next week at the American Academy of Religion in Denver, I will once again have the privilege and pleasure of co-leading a tour of intriguing religious sites. One interesting place that we haven’t been able to include on this year’s tour is the International Church of Cannabis. That’s right, it is a church formed around the “lifestance” that “an individual’s spiritual journey, and search for meaning, is one of self-discovery that can be accelerated with ritual cannabis use.” Members of the church refer to themselves as Elevationists.

The Gothic-revival building the church occupies in the Washington Park neighborhood was built by in 1904 for the congregation of Trinity Lutheran.

Barnitz_Memorial_Lutheran_Church__So_Logan__E_Dakota
Barnitz Memorial Lutheran Church – So. Logan & E. Dakota [1910-1930?], Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library
The congregation soon renamed itself Barnitz Memorial Lutheran in honor of Lutheran pastor and missionary, Samuel Bacon Barnitz (1838–1901). Later it served for over twenty years as the home of Mount Calvary Apostolic Church.

After Mount Calvary left in 2015, the Elevationists purchased it and transformed it with the help of two artists. Los Angeles-based artist Kenny Scharf covered the doors and filed the front windows with a cosmic design. Spanish muralist Okuda San Miguel transformed the sanctuary interior with brightly colored geometric murals in his distinctive style.

international_church_of_cannabis
International Church of Cannabis, January 2018, Jeffrey Beall [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

International Church of Cannabis
Ceiling and rear wall, Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

A full gallery of photographs is available in a April 2017 HuffPost article.

On their website, the Elevationists advertise hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons when the church is open to the public. Because Colorado law does not allow the public consumption of marijuana, cannabis may not be used during these times. That is reserved for member-only events.

Telling the History of Religion in Toronto through Congregations

Roberto Perin’s Many Rooms of this House: Religious Diversity in Toronto since 1840 tells the history of religion life in Toronto’s West End over a 160-year period. It offers a kind of composite biography of the many Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist congregations that have been centers of community life.  The book is stunning in its detail and scope. You can read my full review at Reading Religion.