Holy Real Estate

Many Island churches were founded, built and filled to the rafters more than a hundred years ago, when mainline religion held a central place in contemporary affairs. The prevailing culture on the Vineyard these days centers on real estate. More people are interested in the rock (or sand) on which the church was built than in the church message itself, it seems.

This is not just a fall from glory but a particular burden for some churches, caught as they are now between falling membership and financial support on the one hand, and lucrative land assets on the other. Churches, like everything else on the Vineyard, tend to be expensive to maintain but temptingly valuable on the open real estate market. In urban areas, old churches have been converted into loft apartments, restaurants, galleries, even nightclubs.

Last weekend the four parishes of the former United Methodist Cooperative Parish of Martha’s Vineyard met for services as two separate entities. Three down-Island congregations have stayed in a cooperative arrangement, but are rotating buildings, worshipping for a month each in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown churches. The Chilmark parishioners met in their church on the Menemsha Crossroad, with lay ministry, now as a separate body. After a long review, the up-Islanders left the cooperative rather than face the possibility that their historic property might, at some point, have to be sold for the sake of the Island congregation at large. Feelings are raw in the pews.

The Catholic parish on the Vineyard is slowly undergoing a similar self-examination, similarly emotional. There is what-if internal discussion, noted in this newspaper more than a year ago, about closing some or all of its three buildings and creating a new central house of worship.

The idea of closing a church, where people have been married or buried or baptized, elicits outrage; those who love the place as sacred find it hard to see it as just another piece of property. They know their church is not bricks and mortar. To them it is like a family — and perhaps Vineyard families struggling with the same issues of being land-rich and income-poor can relate to their struggles.

The churches’ challenges are complicated by the historic nature of their buildings, where preservation issues come into play. Resolving the holy real estate conundrum over the long term will not be easy, whatever their leadership decides.

For now, though, perhaps the pressure can inspire those churches anew toward what is at the heart of their faith, after all — the drive to improve the lives of others. Island church buildings can (and in some instances already do) serve as places for support group meetings, speakers, preschool programs, nonprofit offices, programs for at-risk youth, soup kitchens, even, as we’ve lately realized may be needed, homeless shelters. In this way, the grassroots work of churches can make a powerful contribution to the community while they wrestle with what to do with its foundations and facades. It may even save them.