This is the reprint of an article that appeared in The Wittenberg Door (September/October 2007), Alive Now! and on the General Board of Discipleship website, and a sequel to yesterday’s, The Church in the Plastic Bubble. Since I wrote the original article, I discovered that this is not an aberration, but an industry. People-proofing churches (from “those” people) has become popular sport in our Christian culture. Additionally, I’ve encountered church ushers trained in martial arts, fire arms, and anti-terrorist protocols. Some churches now hire armed guards. Sales of security systems to churches increase, even in a tough economy. For me, it raises some serious questions about what we have let the church become, but here is the early encounter I entitled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
(The following is a somewhat surreal conversation I had with a woman who struck up a conversation with me in a Madison, Wisconsin coffee shop. Her quotes were captured on my nifty little digital recorder, and are shared verbatim. This is an op-ed piece – a reaction to what may be a disturbing trend in our church world in the 21st century. It is intended as a think piece, and I am very interested in your views – maybe I am over-reacting…)
Is the world becoming a more or less hostile place? Who ‘belongs’ to a community and who doesn’t? Are the poor and marginalized our brothers and sisters for whom we have responsibility or are they merely a problem to be solved? There are no simple answers to these questions, but for Christians it is assumed that they are easy questions to answer. The world is a broken place with all kinds of problems and the church exists to address problems, but to include all people (especially the poor and marginalized) as part of the solution. We have a responsibility to all God’s people, no matter who they are or where they live or what their life circumstances are… right? And we want nothing more than to create congregational environments that personify the highest ideals of “open hearts, open minds, open doors”… are we on the same page?
Tell all this to some churches in the Chicago area who have hired an architect to “beautify by securing” their church campuses.
I met a young, intense, fast-talking, energetic, in-demand architect from Chicago, at a Victor Allen’s coffee shop. She is currently working for fifteen different churches to “make sure that people who don’t belong, don’t try to take advantage of the church.” Without any apparent cognitive dissonance, my new friend joyfully shared her plans to “keep churches safe, secure, and visually appealing.”
Some of her plans for church properties include “wall- and post-mounted sprinkler heads that fire in two minute bursts five times an hour to prevent loiterers from cluttering the garden spots.” Also, “sloped grass areas to discourage sitting, fake surveillance cameras – you know, shells – to make people think they’re being watched, and angled entryways to make them uncomfortable for any purpose other than entry and exit. There is nothing scarier than showing up to church and finding some homeless guy asleep on your doorstep…” Additionally, she happily shared that research shows that “an eighty-eight degree angle provides the least comfortable decorative bench-back,” ensuring that people will not sit for long periods of time. And, “if you use a wide, inverse waffle pattern on the seat – like a cheese-grater — it makes sleeping all but impossible.”
The conversation shifted from the troubling to the macabre as we discussed trashcans, motion sensors, and water fountains. This young woman owns the patent on a plastic trashcan that easily receives waste, but “is specially hardened and sharpened so that anyone trying to remove garbage from the top will receive a painful cut. This discourages the ‘dumpster divers’ (translated ‘hungry people’) that are literally everywhere these days… Not only do our motion sensors activate lights, but they electrify fences and doorknobs as well. And one of the things I am proudest of is the sensor-activated water fountain – if you don’t have a church fob on your key ring, you can’t get a drink. We’re looking into a parking security gate similar to the One Pass system – when you join the church you get a box for your windshield that lets you in the parking lot.”
I raised a question concerning such extreme measures to discourage people from using church property – “Aren’t you concerned about law suits?” With a twinkle in her eye, the architect confided, “These people are outside the system. They don’t have the money or other resources for legal action. It could be a real problem if we inflicted serious injury, but we don’t. Why hurt someone if you can get the result you want by irritating them?”
“I am getting so much work from churches these days, especially in the suburbs. The city is full – there are too many people on the streets, so they are looking outside the city for food and shelter. Churches can’t cope, the church people don’t want them there, and they are tearing everything up. Though I am not an active Christian, I kind of see this as my ministry – to keep undesirables out of the churches.”
This architect’s attitudes might be excused (or at least forgiven), but what is most troubling is that churches are hiring her services. Granted, churches want to create safe, healthy, and secure environments, but the steps the architect described go far beyond the creation of a safe environment. When we not only close our doors, but we take steps to punish, hurt, and deny comfort to those who most need welcome, it calls into question our very reason for being and what it really means to be the church.