Sacred Space

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Pastor’s Column January 2005

Sacred Space
by K Karpen

One day last month we hosted a group of doctoral students from New York Theological Seminary. One student, a Korean-American pastor, arrived early and didn’t like what he saw. This is how he put it in an essay he wrote later:

“As I entered the church, I was shocked by the scene. I entered the door to the sanctuary. People were exercising in the corner of the sanctuary at 9:00 am. It was very strange for me. On the opposite corner, there were a lot of clothes. Some people who looked like counselors were helping people with documents on their desks. I couldn’t imagine I was in a sanctuary. In my view, sanctuary must be clean, calm, holy and dignified. To be honest, it looked like a gym and a storeroom. The ceiling is domed and there was no cross. Yankee Stadium.”

There are days I agree with that. We have a gorgeous sanctuary that is the spiritual home to hundreds of us, and thousands of other people as well. A sanctuary is a special place. A different kind of space. Sacred space.

The week before Christmas I walked through the sanctuary to find bikes filling the chancel. The building across the street was clearing out their basement and the food pantry staff went over, picked up these great, unwanted bikes, cleaned them up, oiled them, and were giving them out to people who needed them. The choir pews were overflowing with toys donated to the church so the children of food pantry customers could have something for Christmas. It looked awful. But was it somehow sacred as well?

When I first began to read that student’s essay, I felt a little embarrassed and little bit guilty. But the essay went on:

“Have you ever thought about the meaning of church? It is not just a building. Furthermore, it is not an antique thing. Church is for people who have needs, who need services. It has to be not only a sanctuary but a house for people. St. Paul & St. Andrew is much more than a house of worship,” he concluded. “The church is a real house of God for the poor.” Wow. I didn’t feel so bad after that.

A friend from high school visited and wrote, “I love your church, K. I love that your sanctuary is also a closet; your halls store carrots; the entry is crammed with strollers. It’s the first church I have been in in a long time where I can feel anything good. I love that you seem to regard the building as clay or cloth — something to be molded and tailored around the needs of the people you are there for.” When a kid who has nothing gets something to play with, maybe that’s sacred after all.