So much happened this past weekend, that I am splitting it into 3 parts. Saturday morning, I was off to see Karin, an old roommate who’s relocated to far northwest Houston. I got back to the church in time for the closing moments of a “walk through” where people visited the Church of the Redeemer and went through the rooms, remembering the things that had happened in each one and giving thanks. Like the choir room, which was also where we on the dance team used to practice. That sure brought back memories. Here is the segment KHOU-TV ran on the closing.
Todd Woodruff – an old friend – and I were wandering about the church and he showed me an area underneath the front part of the nave that I’d never seen before. Then we segued toward the back of the basement where we ran into the old downstairs chapel, now stripped of its pews. A guitarist was in the chapel playing worship music and a few people were standing there singing. Todd and I stood by the door and the music drew us all in as we sang harmonies for 20-25 minutes; just lost in space and time, as it were. So many spiritual breakthroughs happened in that chapel over the decades and it was sad to see only some flowers on the altar left.
That evening there were a few of the old community houses open for people to visit and see where some of the households used to be. I’d planned to visit several but I only got to two: the Broussards and Maria Devlin’s new place which used to be inhabited by the Schiffmayers and then the Wilsons. Maria had done an unbelievable job of remodeling this home on McKinney at Fashion in dark-stained cedar woodwork and I’m guessing she easily added $100K to its value by doing so.
As I walked about talking with folks, I picked up quite a bit of bewilderment and anger among people as to how the local Episcopal diocese had pulled a fast one on Redeemer by deciding to shut down the place. The surface reasons were somewhat believable: the congregation was down to about 70 persons; they could not afford a priest much less afford several million dollars to repair the wiring, broken AC and so on. But to literally demolish the church just because no one could lay their hands on $10K or so? Hadn’t Christ Church Cathedral downtown cost far more 20 years ago to upgrade?
What came out in conversations was that the church was in a marginal, quasi-industrial area that the diocese didn’t want to sink any more money or staff into. Redeemer was seen as a liability and a money drain. Clergy had come and gone in recent years and more and more of the congregation had drifted off. It didn’t help that Redeemer was charismatic; a spirituality no one in diocesan leadership identified with nor cared to nurture.
I was told that last fall, Redeemer had approached the diocese about getting help to repair the facility to the point where members could meet in one of the classrooms, as they could not afford the AC – which is broken – for the giant nave. (There was a huge fan this weekend blowing air into the nave. Fortunately it was February, not July, else everyone would have perished from the heat). The congregation never dreamed the diocese would order a feasibility study, then decide to bring the wrecking ball in.
People wondered if the sad condition of the physical plant had provided an excuse for the diocese to do what it had wanted to do for age: raze the place and send the congregation packing to guest quarters where it will be a superhuman feat to retain members. There was talk of how or whether the Tellepsens – the Norwegian family of builders whose grandfather built the church in 1932 – had offered to foot some of the repair bill had the diocese agreed to save the church. There are rumors to that effect but I was not able to linger in Houston long enough to look into them. (I will say members of the Tellepsen family bought 3 of my books so maybe I’ll be hearing from them).
One person I talked with kept asking if anyone had presented to the bishop a case for keeping the church and organizing a capital campaign. Redeemer has a large enough diaspora that surely people would have contributed. Did anyone ask Bishop Andy Doyle what he intends to do with Redeemer’s property once the land is cleared? The thought is that sooner or later the diocese will sell the land if the East End ever looks like it might revive but there’s no possibility the diocese will ever allow another church to be built there.
Was the diocese actively working against Redeemer, slowly doing things here and there over the years to undermine the place? One priest I talked with thought so and gave me two major examples as to how that was done. It seems like the leaders of Redeemer, who were severely weakened by not having a rector to fight for them, just weren’t able to fight off the seemingly inexorable conclusions of the feasibility study which concluded that the church was too dangerous to operate in. In fact, the diocese had built two porch-like coverings for 2 of the church entrances, supposedly to protect parishioners from falling concrete. Lots of jokes were made about those structures over the weekend, in that everyone knew the vision of chunks of concrete falling through the air was a farce. The place looked incredibly sturdy to those of us who spent the weekend there, yet the diocese acted as though it were condemned property. The very locks were supposed to be changed today even though the vast majority of the congregation’s belongings are still sitting inside.
And so, did the diocese finally find a hole in Redeemer’s shield and drive a truck through it? Or was closing the church a severe mercy for a congregation that for years had existed in a time warp dating back 30-40 years and could not draw even 100 people while at the same time the Catholic Charismatic Center one mile away brings in large crowds every week?
What was most haunting were the people who still lived in the Houston area who showed up for services this past weekend. Many still lived close enough to Eastwood but had long since gone to other churches. Had this large group stuck around, Redeemer would be chock full of leaders and far from being closed down. During my era there, however, the visionaries and the prophetic types – whose presence is vital to keeping a church healthy – were largely run off by a ruling junta at Redeemer that I too found nearly impossible to crack. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, there were layers of gifted people drawn to Redeemer. So many were stymied and ended up drifting off while the leadership did nothing.
And 20 years later, there we were, closing the church.