Houses of worship find their place—and purpose—in today’s world
Some 130 houses of worship are found in the Berkshires. That may seem like a lot for a predominantly rural region with a declining population, but there were once many more. Among Catholic churches alone, upwards of ten have closed since 2004 (six in 2008). Secularism, especially among young adults, is on the rise, and many of the remaining spiritual vestiges are struggling to keep their doors open.
“There is a passionate desire to live with meaning and purpose, especially among the younger generations,” says the Reverend Ralph Howe (photo below) of the historic First United Methodist Church in Pittsfield. “But churches, especially New England churches, tend to get locked into particular, archaic doctrines and ‘code languages’ that have no meaning to people growing up in the world right now.”
Once the focal point of villages, towns, and cities, churches were among the first and the biggest structures that appeared in any community. Those that are still functioning, as well as other religious institutions that have emerged, are finding that they are needed not only as places to congregate and pray, but also where people can dialogue, disseminate information, give support, and help those in need.
In that spirit, new groups are finding their way into these houses of worship—immigrants, in particular, which is reflective of countywide population trends. They are the fastest-growing demographic, and at First United Methodist Church, some 30 immigrants from predominantly Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire have joined the nearly 250 regular members. They have brought in a new set of traditions—dancing and singing when the tithing tray is passed, wearing colorful dress at nearly every service, adding a deeper sense of community and inclusivity.
“We are leaning more towards a multicultural experience and shifting out of the typical ‘white’ model this church has been in the past.” Howe says. “We want this to be a safe place for everybody. We’re imperfect still, but we’re trying.”
According to the Reverend Brent Damrow (photo at top right), pastor at the iconic First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, maintaining relevance and speaking the language of the times, without losing meaning, is the fine line that most churches must walk. It’s a challenge, but not impossible. For starters, the church is an officially designated “Open and Affirming” congregation, meaning it has made a public covenant of welcoming persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions. Damrow himself is gay, and this informs his ministry. There are smaller details, such as gluten-free communion bread and grape juice communion wine to assure that everyone is able to participate. Damrow has held services around Christmas which enunciate the fact that Mary and Joseph, and Jesus himself, were immigrants and refugees.
“The role of the church is to be able to tap into the ancient truths and questions—the ones that have existed since the beginning—and live them out in our modern times,” says Damrow. “God is still speaking, and we should still be listening.”
It’s not easy trying to anticipate the spiritual needs of everyone who walks through the doors. Scott Little, who fits solidly into Generation X and is a longtime member of Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs Church (one of two churches in the Parish of St. John Paul II in Adams), hardly ever misses Sunday Mass with his wife and daughter.
“It keeps me grounded and reminds me what’s really important in life,” Little says. “This world is not all there is. Honestly, I go to church to remind me of all the blessings I have. I feel very grateful for my life, and I want to thank God and give him his due.”
His family is somewhat of an anomaly at Notre Dame, where the majority of members are upwards of 60 years old, he says. Younger, charismatic priests could help bring in younger people, younger families, giving the congregation a better chance at survival.
When Hevreh of Southern Berkshire (a member of the Union for Reform Judaism) in Great Barrington was founded in 1974 by Rabbi Deborah Zecher, it was not a family-rich synagogue. It now serves some 350 households, and nearly 60 of those are families with young children. Rabbis Neil Hirsch and Jodie Gordon have led the congregation since Zecher’s retirement in 2014, and both have young children. “We have raised our kids together as well as built a multi-generational congregation,” says Gordon.
The generational shift has brought more than 70 students to Hevreh’s religious school programming, many of whom are Berkshire natives. This was not the case when it began—most congregants were “outsiders” from Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York. Young members find themselves needing their synagogue more than ever as a sanctuary, not only from the normal challenges of teen life in 2020, but also from the “thread of hate” that Hirsch says continues to run through the community in the form of, most recently, anti-Semitic incidences which occurred at Monument Valley Middle School in Great Barrington last fall.
“There have been and are instances of hate in our community against people of color, immigrants, Jewish people, which finds itself often in the schools,” says Hirsch. “We’ve played a very active role in triaging that kind of trauma in a spiritual frame. We have to. We have a unique community connection here and social justice is part of my spiritual life.”
“We are living in unprecedented times, and we have to preach authentically and use this role responsibly,” adds Gordon. “I can’t lead a prayer if it ends at the door of the synagogue.”
Hevreh is awaiting final licensing to build a daycare on the premises, a direct response to the desperate need for childcare, especially in the southern end of the county. This kind of community activism is echoed throughout many of the local houses of worship, even ones that have served through the generations as spiritual pillars. At First United Methodist Church in Pittsfield, ServiceNet, the organization that oversees many of the homeless shelters (including Barton’s Crossing in Pittsfield) in western Massachusetts and Worcester, is looking to set up a permanent shelter in one wing of its 1870s building. Other houses of worship also operate food kitchens and have food pantries as well as Meals on Wheels and other programs that engage massive volunteer efforts from congregants every year.
Recognizing and meeting the needs of the community at large has become integral to most doctrines. At the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, the congregation has swelled from 125 members in 2013 to 200 members. Adult education classes have exploded; congregants are not only learning about the faith, they’re going out in the community and serving.
“We’ve moved from a model of going to church, to being church,” says Damrow.
Outreach comes in many forms, with members volunteering for Habitat for Humanity builds, Construct walks, staffing the People’s Pantry, going to New Orleans and New York to help rebuild after the storms. The church also led the Berkshire Conversation Project last spring, when various organization came together to talk about firearms in our community. Damrow hopes to hold more conversations in the future.
“We have huge, clear windows in our church. The world is visible to us, even as we worship, and we are visible to the world,” he says. “If you come here to escape the world, you’ve come to the wrong place. We are here to build a resilient faith to be able to return to the world every day, stronger.”