By Isaac Constans
Listen Up, Lansing Staff Reporter
It is apparent when meandering through downtown that the urban landscape is dominated by government buildings and churches. And while one makes clear sense in the state’s capitol, the other needs some explication.
Churches in Lansing have always been magnets for socialization and meeting places for residents. And despite the falling numbers of churchgoers, the grandiose edifices of worship continue to impact the community.
“This is 75,000 square ft. of building created to facilitate the intellectual, social, spiritual, and educational development of the community of Lansing,” Rev. Linda Farmer-Lewis of Central United Methodist Church said. “We are here for that reason, and we were built for that reason, and community dollars were given to us for that reason.”
With an unmistakable Romanesque façade, the present church was erected in 1888-89, although the land was granted to the church 40 years earlier, according to the Lansing city website.
The first building north of the Capitol on North Capitol Avenue, the dark-brick church was designed by the architect of the Capitol, Elijah Meyers. Its connection to downtown is ingrained in the city and embraced by the church.
“Central United Methodist Church considers itself downtown for good for a reason,” Farmer-Lewis said. “And that reason, which we’re honing even more so, is to be the heart of Christ in the heart of downtown (the church’s motto) and to enlist people in what I call ‘the Human Project.’
“The Human Project is the lifting up of people into their most abundant selves… We are very inclusive, which means we will defend Muslims, we will defend Jews, we will defend people because they are part of the larger project. So we are very ecumenical in that sense.”
While the desire to continue nurturing an upright society remains undeterred for Central United Methodist Church, diminishing resources make this mission significantly more difficult. As is representative of church attendance in general, the congregation numbers at Central United Methodist Church have significantly declined, a trend magnified by the lack of young attendees.
“When I was a kid here we had 2,500 members,” Farmer-Lewis said of the same church she grew up attending. “And there were a lot of houses around here… but what really happened to the churches in Lansing was when GM left. When GM left and tore down Fisher Body (plant), that really hurt these churches.”
Central United Methodist Church now contains a congregation of 335, less than 15 percent of the original number, and those numbers are in steady decline still. Most of that decline came in the 10 years after the uprooting of GM jobs, according to Farmer-Lewis, although the replacement of affordable housing with office space also played a role.
Yet, the allure of being downtown is enthralling to quite a few regular members. However, the recent spike in downtown occupancy has had a negligible effect on church turnout, considering that many downtown residents belong to a younger crowd who is not “churched.”
“I know it is (a big attraction) because we’ve had people say, ‘I want to go to downtown church. I want to be in the heart of things,’” Farmer-Lewis said. “But we don’t do very many funerals, you know why? It’s because older people follow their children and grandchildren out of state where they had to go to get jobs.”
The story is not as simple as the declining place of churches as worship centers. For niche communities and refugees, the church is their primary source of meeting akin people and tapping into a relatable cultures.
“If there’s a different pastor from a different town that comes to visit, then we throw together a party or a get-together,” Mai Thao, a fifth-year member of Central Free Methodist Church, said.
For Thao, the community provided by the Hmong population and 3:00 p.m. Sunday mass is enough to commute from south Lansing. She and her two children will have their Halloween celebration at the church house.
“It’s just a friendly trick-or-treat for the kids to come over and eat,” Thao said.
Sometimes, those communities are not borne out of a desire to meet people with similar origins but out of a need for a sturdy base in the midst of the barrage of new culture.
North Presbyterian Church, on Grand River Avenue, has had several occupying denominations since its 1915 construction, currently housed by Epicenter of Worship. 3:00 p.m. on Sundays, the church hosts a Burundi worship service.
The service is well attended by African refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda, primarily. Juan Carlos, a Lansing native, was the sole American at the service, at his friend Patrick Baraka’s request.
“It starts up a new friendship along a community that keeps expanding with refugees that keep coming here,” Carlos said.
The service is musically grounded to bridge gaps between cultural variances amongst the many people. A resounding, reverberant voice and air-quaking piano can be heard well outside of the window during the passionate service.
“They got a good community. It’s definitely needed to have something pleasant, something good and wholesome, and where the goal is God,” Carlos said. “It’s beautiful.”
Baraka, the singer for the day, moved to Lansing from Uganda seven months ago. He has found the transition, with language barriers and integration, difficult at times but is happy to have stability in Lansing.
“I think it’s cool,” Baraka said. “I like it because everything is okay. I move around and look at everything and it’s okay. Lansing is good.”
The service requires multiple interpreters to get the word of the gospel around to everyone. However, after the service, conversation breaks out and kids sort soccer teams. In traditional African dress, it serves as a reminder of home to those dispossessed of their homes.
For churches like Central United Methodist Church, the role of community-provider is not forsaken, either. Although the church is steadily losing its population, the other services it provides are as popular as ever, and the church still serves a cultural icon.
“We have a lot of legislative meetings over here because the lobbyists love to have their meetings here, since there’s no room in the capital,” Farmer-Lewis said, adding that choral assemblies and press conferences were regular occurrences, as well.
“This was built to be of service to the community. It was the movie theater for the town, we have the two-lane bowling alley on the fifth floor, we have the gymnasium, we have three different teams every day that use this facility to play basketball.”
Lansing churches expand far outside of their parochial duties to accommodate the needs of residents, churchgoers or not.
“Most of [the facility users] are not (members of my congregation), actually,” Farmer-Lewis said. “All of these things we make available and at very little cost.”
Amongst the tintinnabulation of church bells that seems so commonplace and natural, however, remain the financial difficulties representative of religion in America. Although churches still have a very salient effect on the Lansing population, upkeep and maintenance cause ungainly predicaments.
While Farmer-Lewis promises that her church is not going anywhere, she still hopes for a revival in membership and funding so that the church’s ambitions can truly be realized. For such churches, remaining afloat and operative remains the struggle, and the community risks losing valuable historical and cultural monuments.
“We’re going to be here, no matter what configuration we have to be in,” Farmer-Lewis said. “But it’s tough… Now we’re in the rebuild. But that doesn’t really matter if you don’t have people, that’s the commodity you need the most.”