Religious architecture is all about helping believers worship.
Whether it comes to church bell towers, steeples and crosses or mosque minarets and domes, the designs are ways for the congregation to keep the faith. The Daily News Journal recently visited a number of these houses of worship throughout Rutherford County to learn how architecture plays a role in their religion.
Located in rural Christiana, the 12,799-square-foot Hindu Shri Krishna Pranami temple completed in 2009 is, on the surface, a stark contrast to the traditional homes and farms that make up this tight-knit community. But it’s that rural quality, that “incredible natural beauty” that made the community an ideal fit for the temple and its followers, according to Vippin Aggarwal, speaking on behalf of Temple President Hasmukhbhai Savalia.
It’s a building many people in Chicago recognize. Across the Chicago River from famed landmarks Marina City and the Tribune Towers, on East Wacker Drive, the 17th Church of Christ, Scientist resembles the shell of a giant tortoise, an upside-down cereal bowl or perhaps a concrete UFO.
The Christian Science faith is an institution much like the building itself-many people have walked by, but few have entered, so to speak. On March 18th, however, visitors were treated to an intimate introduction to this relatively new, American-born religion, the latest to be featured in the Council for the Parliament of World’s Religions “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project.
“Sharing Sacred Spaces” is an interreligious project focused on fostering cultural and spiritual understanding among Chicago’s faith communities. Each month, one of eight local congregations opens its doors for an afternoon to showcase its “sacred space” and unique spiritual traditions.
Upon arrival guests were ushered upstairs to the Church’s main auditorium, a large, tiered meeting space more akin to a university lecture hall than a traditional church sanctuary, save for an enormous organ whose pipes soar up to the high ceiling above the pulpit. While not overtly religious, the setting started to make sense after an introduction to the faith by congregation member Carol Hohle. Hohle began the program by sharing what her congregation had learned from the other participating “Sacred Spaces” communities.
“We’ve learned so much from previous Open Houses and found much that resonated,” she said. “To our Buddhist friends–we loved your spiritual grace and poise. And to the Presbyterians–we cherish that your faith is ‘reformed and always reforming.’ At Chicago Sinai, we were humbled by your practice of praying in a room with windows to remind you of the need to engage with humanity. At St. James, we learned about your All Saints Service and felt the power and comfort of remembering loved ones who have passed. And to our friends from Chicago Temple–we want you to know we have six hymns in our hymnal by Charles Wesley!”
A commitment to lifelong learning is one of Christian Science’s central beliefs. In fact, proponents of the faith are referred to as “Students of Christian Science.” For the faithful, God is not “distant and unknowable”. Christian Scientists believe it is possible for each individual to become intimately related to a God that is “always present and all-good.” Founded in Boston by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879, the religion has an American flair, celebrating ideals like democracy, equality, and autodidacticism, or self-teaching.
The Christian Scientists’ most distinctive belief, though, concerns the healing power of God’s love. In the words of Baker Eddy herself, “health is not a condition of matter, but of mind.” This tenet revived the lost Christian element of healing-both physical wounds as well as spiritual and emotional ones.
The practice of the religion requires only two texts: the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with the Key to the Scriptures”. Christian Scientists are encouraged to study the texts both individually and as a congregation. A Sunday service for the Church of Christ, Scientist consists of readings from both texts by elected readers (the church has no designated minister or preacher but instead elects two lay people from the congregation to lead the service.)
The two scriptures are represented in large engravings at the front of the auditorium: on the left, from the Book of John, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” On the right, a quote from Mary Baker Eddy: “Divine love always has met and will always meet every human need.”
The auditorium (as well as the building itself) is intended to provide a “quiet oasis for prayer and study”, said Chicago architect Laura Fischer, explaining the 44-year-old building’s architecture and history to the audience. As a nod to the Church’s democratic policies, architect Harry Weiss modeled the auditorium after a Greek amphitheater, with no seat being farther than 50 feet from the readers’ podium. The four-story worship space was topped with a large cupula, or “lantern” that let the light of the bright spring day into the building. From the outside, the lantern looks a bit like a crown perched atop the seven-story building.
After Fischer’s remarks about the building and its architecture, guests broke into small groups led by members of the congregation, who talked about their personal experiences as students of Christian Science and answered questions from the “Sacred Spaces” participants.
Not surprisingly, most guests were curious about the members’ experiences with healing.
Lois Rae Carlson, a member of the congregation and a Christian Science Practitioner, is devoted full time to healing others through spirituality. She described many of her own health problems, including a broken bone in her arm and a growth in her stomach, that were healed through what she described as “a byproduct of an interaction with God.”
Experiences with healing are not only physical, however. Through proper study, emotional and spiritual wounds can be healed as well. Carlson spoke about healing a troubled relationship with her mother as well as learning to love and care for herself emotionally.
The Christian Science perspective is not unlike that of the “Sacred Spaces” project; the belief that by breaking down barriers, letting go of preconceived notions about identity and spirituality we are not only able to heal what ails us, but to thrive.
At the fifth gathering of the monthly “Sharing Sacred Spaces” program, the Rev. Phil Blackwell, Senior Pastor at the First United Methodist Church in the Chicago Loop, mentioned it was not uncommon for passers-by to mistake the church for a bank or hotel.
The passers-by could be forgiven. At street level, the skyscraper, which sports a minimalist facade, gilded revolving doors, and a sparkling, and tiled lobby, (complete with a concierge) blends in neatly with its urban surroundings.
However, visitors to 77 W. Washington Street need only tilt their heads toward the sky to realize this is no ordinary skyscraper. Perched atop the 23 floors sits a resplendent carved steeple, topped with a polished gold cross.
The Church was the latest in a series of interfaith events put on by the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions’ “Sharing Sacred Spaces” program, which brings together people from different spiritual and religious traditions. Each month, one of eight participating congregations from the Chicago area opens its doors to others for an afternoon to showcase their own space and share their beliefs and traditions. Other participating congregations include a Buddhist temple, a Jewish Reform congregation, an Episcopal cathedral, an Islamic center, and Christian Science, Presbyterian and Catholic churches.
photos by John White
“I’ve been to a lot of interfaith exchanges before,” said Jennifer Butler, a “Sacred Spaces” guest, “but most of them have been in a neutral location. They haven’t been in a place of worship. I think it’s a neat way to be welcomed in and get a sense of hospitality.” The events spread “a universal message of brotherhood,” said Ahmed Nayamuth, another guest. “Its good to build bridges and share the same thing-the common milk of human kindness.”
On February 19th, 2012, guests of the program were greeted with a tour that showcased the Temple’s neo-gothic sanctuary, which featured ornate vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows, including one showcasing the Methodist Church’s history in Chicago, depicting jewel-like versions of the buildings in the city’s skyline. A carving under the window quoted the book of Revelation: “And John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of Heaven.” Carved angels sat atop the ceiling, gazing down at the visitors.
After a visit to the sanctuary, guests filed into the elevators, which opened directly into the Church’s art gallery on the second floor. The current exhibit, a chilling installation entitled “Urban Dolorosa”, memorializes the more than 300 children who have been killed in Chicago since 2008. Child-sized chairs, lined up to simulate a classroom, stand empty in front of long lists of the names of Chicago children lost to violence. The exhibit is an example of Methodists’ commitment to social justice and Chicago Temple’s commitment to its urban community.
Their urban location translates into a diverse mix of people, backgrounds, and heritages. The church boasts 700 members and 300 constituents from every zip code in the city. This location also gives the church an opportunity to interact with the urban community in new, immediate ways.
For example, the downtown location is open from 7 AM to 9 PM seven days a week, which gives the homeless what associate pastor Claude King describes as “a place of prayer and solace…a place to pour out their troubles to the world.” The sanctuary provides a place for the needy to seek shelter, especially during the frigid Chicago winters. Rev. King says the fact the church provides a place to stay for “people who are not seen as human beings in the city of Chicago…makes it even more sacred.”
The urban environment also grants the “skyscraper church” a financial advantage. Since it was completed in 1923, floors five through 21 have been rented out as office space (famed Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow once held an office on the 6th floor.) The pragmatic decision to open the building to non-religious business ushered in a new marriage of religion and commerce, giving the church a built-in source of income. The dual use of the building kept the Methodist Church afloat during bleak economic periods like the Great Depression.
“The fact that they’ve succeeded for almost 100 years in that building means they’re good at adapting to that commercial process,” said Robert Rogers, a retired architect and Sacred Spaces participant, who called the building’s mixed-use “innovative.”
The afternoon concluded with a recital of traditional hymns like “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” and not-so-traditional meditative Taizé chanting. (Taizé is a type of ecumenical worship that emphasizes prayer, meditation, and introspection. The church holds a Taizé prayer service once a week.) Music has played a huge role in Methodist liturgy since the faith’s very inception. Charles Wesley, who along with his brother, John, is credited with founding the Methodist Church, wrote the words to many of Christianity’s favorite hymns, including “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”.
After the event’s conclusion, guests were invited to view the church’s “Sky Chapel”, a small sanctuary built into the skyscraper’s steeple 400 feet above the city. After visitors completed the trek to the top, which included two elevator rides and a climb up a staircase, they were greeted to a view only a “skyscraper church” could offer. Inside, a quiet place for prayer and meditation high above the busy streets of downtown Chicago is a sacred space which simultaneously rests within the city but also transcends it.
In a recent event at Chicago Sinai congregation on the Near North side of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Sternfield spoke to a packed congregation about the importance of interreligious understanding. However, the audience was not his usual Jewish family. Instead, he spoke to Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists. The importance of the event was not lost on him.
“We’re all part of one human family”, said Sternfield. “We’re not just here to cheer for our own team, so to speak.”
The philosophy falls perfectly in line with that of the Council for the Parliament of World Religions, the organization behind the “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project. The global organization, located in Chicago, strives to promote interreligious harmony “to achieve a just, peaceful, and sustainable world.”
“Sharing Sacred Spaces” brings together different religious and spiritual communities in the Chicago area. One of eight participating congregations opens its doors on one afternoon during their designated month to showcase their sacred space and share their beliefs and traditions.
Guests at Chicago Sinai found themselves in the light-filled, octagonal sanctuary on the second floor of the congregation’s home on the Near North Side. For Christian visitors, the scene was surprisingly familiar: an organist, rows of pews, a pulpit, and a small choir.
The similarities are not merely a coincidence. Reform Judaism evolved from the desire of 19th-century Jews to integrate into more mainstream society. For worship, this meant adopting more commonly-used liturgical practices, and in North America, that meant mirroring Protestant Christianity. For many of those attending the event at Chicago Sinai, their experience was different than what they expected. In contrast to traditional Orthodox Judaism, the men did not wear yarmulkes, and women and men were not separated. In addition, the Sinai community has services on Sunday as well as Friday night. The Reform approach have proved immensely popular among the Chicago community: Sinai’s services for the Jewish High Holy Days draw such a large crowd that they hold their services at Fourth Presbyterian church, a wonderful example of collaboration between faith communities sharing their sacred spaces.
The experience resonated with Muhammed Hussain, a member of the Downtown Islamic Center.
“I thought it was really interesting to see how the Reform faith came with a desire to become integrated,” he said, mentioning that Muslims also experience difficulties assimilating into a dominant American culture while still striving to stay true to their faith’s traditions. “It really makes me feel good there is an example to follow.”
Reform Judaism emphasizes ethical commandments over the more traditional ritual commandments, such as keeping kosher and not using electricity on the Sabbath. Perhaps the most important commandment for Reform Jews is written on the wall of the sanctuary: Rabbi Hillel’s famous declaration, “Do not do unto others what you would not have done to yourself.”
Practically every physical aspect of the temple has a symbolic meaning. During the program, Tom Samuels, a member of the congregation, described the painstaking thoughtfulness that went into designing and building the temple, which was completed in1997. The congregation worked closely with Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, to make sure every part of the building had a purpose and a meaning.
“For me, the initial impression was of the actual space itself,” said Kwang Oh, a member of the First United Methodist Church and a student at Garrett-Evangelical Theogical Seminary. “I’ve never been to a synagogue before…everything had a purpose for the design.”
For example, the three main parts of the temple parallel the three main tenets of Judaism: worship, individual prayer, and “learning the book”. The sanctuary, a smaller chapel, and a library and study space, correspond to these three parts, respectively.
The unusual placement of the sanctuary on the second floor has a theological meaning as well, explained Samuels. “You come up to Temple, you want to distance yourself from everyday life,” he explained. “But then you come back down to earth to re-engage in the community.”
One of the most visually striking elements of the sanctuary is a huge stained glass window above the ark holding the Torah scrolls. The window, designed by the artist Brian Clarke, serves a decorative as well as a symbolic purpose: a reminder there is a world outside, waiting.
We’re never supposed to think what we do is isolated from the rest of our lives,” explained Rabbi Sternfield. “We cannot pray in a vacuum.”
“The more we understand each other, the broader our own lives are,” said Shirley Paulson, the Head of Ecumenical Affairs for the Church of Christ, Scientist. “We find what’s beautiful in ourselves when we see what’s beautiful in others.” By highlighting similarities and dissolving preconceptions, the “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project puts Paulson’s sentiment into practice.
Members of Midwest Buddhist Temple host neighboring communities on a tour of their facility.
Midwest Buddhist Temple
by Susan Schwendener
Chicago-area religious and spiritual communities are gathering this fall through May 2012 in eight downtown places of worship. The program is intended to foster a better understanding of each others’ traditions and to begin to build a larger sense of community.
“Sharing Sacred Spaces” is a project of the Sacred Space dimension of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, a group focused on building harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities in order to create a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.
Suzanne Morgan, a retired architect with expertise in religious architecture, is the force behind this project. She believes that a space becomes sacred through the meaning it has for its community. Sharing that meaning can reduce social tension and cultural misunderstanding and build bridges of trust and hope.
The Sacred Spaces design team hopes participants will begin to build a greater sense of community together by listening, learning and cultivating friendships.
The first event was held October 2nd at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, 435 W. Menomonee, with over 100 participants attending.
“There was such a beautiful, peaceful energy at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, and I particularly remember gasps of astonishment from people sitting near me,” said Gale Kryzak of Fourth Presbyterian Church. “Our Buddhist brothers and sisters blended their Buddhist principles, respect for nature and their building’s design into an organically insightful experience. Visiting the Temple with diverse faith communities was bridge-building at its best.”
Other participants also noted that the afternoon was both an introduction to Buddhism and the beginnings of a sense of community.
“I had never been inside the Midwest Buddhist Temple before, so I was very excited about going,” said Peter Rubnitz of Chicago Sinai Congregation. “We first had a tour of the facility. We all then met up in the main sanctuary where Rev. Ron Miyamura welcomed us and gave us a history of the Temple and answered questions about Shin Buddhism. I knew very little about it going in and came away with a much clearer understanding about the basic precepts of the religion.
“After going outdoors and listening to a member speak about the Temple’s architecture, we reconvened in the lower level for refreshments and socializing,” Rubnitz said. “I’m looking forward to the next experience. The more we get together, the more comfortable we will get and the easier it will be to discuss issues of mutual importance.”
Lois Carlson, of 17th Church of Christ, Scientist, said that she was moved by the beautiful spirit of compassion and joy that Buddhists live. “There is a great respect for individuality, with individual values maintained in the afterlife. Buddhists are not concerned with the afterlife, but are more concerned about the spiritual life here.”
Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin,of the Downtown Islamic Center agreed. “The desire to do good and be caring is common among all faiths,” he said. “The openness to discuss and answer questions at the Midwest Buddhist Temple was one of the highlights of my visit. I have a lot more questions for me to understand their faith and practices.”
Seven similar events at Chicago places of worship will be held through May 12, 2012. For engaging information about each of the sacred spaces participating, go to the Sharing Sacred Spaces web page on the Council for a Parliament of World Religions website.
Several area houses of worship will open for educational tours
Space is sacred to Chicago architect Suzanne Morgan, who is leading an effort to bridge religious divides among local faith communities.
The “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project will offer tours of some Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish houses of worship in the area to help foster tolerance and introduce people to faith traditions.
The Midwest Buddhist Temple, 435 W. Menomonee St., kicks off the program Sunday. Other events will continue through May.
“We shape our buildings, and our buildings shape us. This space becomes sacred through the meaning it has for (congregants),” said Morgan, facing the shining Buddha statue during a recent interview at the temple. “We want to use sacred spaces to create a dialogue.”
It was in early 2008 that my Jewish community moved back into our new spiritual home. Our old building had long suffered from poor design, flooding and roofing issues and from a heating/cooling system that worked only parts of the building at any given time. After much research and discussion, it had become clear that doing nothing would no longer be an option. Although we sincerely explored both renovation and moving, we soon realized that the best option for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation would be to tear down and rebuild.
Sitting in the sanctuary today, with it’s impressive ceiling overhead, you might not realize that only the bottom 7 feet of the room are being heated and cooled. And although the warm wooden cypress slats that line the walls will easily embrace you, you might not remember that they once lined mushroom houses in upstate New York. Similarly, the ceremonial doors that welcome you to the building remain impressive in size, but it might go unnoticed that they were fabricated from trees that were sadly removed from the property during our construction. In so many ways, it is precisely what you don’t realize, what you might not remember and what is invisible to the eye that make our JRC building sacred. Stewardship has been woven into the fabric of our communal history and is now a foundation of our communal spiritual life.