A Neighborhood of Churches

The Path to Glory is Right Downtown

A Chronicle colleague, when informed of this week's subject, put its impetus quite succinctly: "When I moved to Austin, I went walking downtown with friends, and we said, `Wow, what a cool church.' And then we walked another block, and said, `Wow, there's another.' And then, `There's another'..."

Actually, there are at least a dozen cool, or at least semi-cool, churches downtown, ranging from storefront sanctuaries to the grand palaces of the Christian faith. The density of religious institutions in the northern half of downtown Austin may be unique among Texas cities, while the business district rivals West Campus and Hyde Park for churches per square foot. (See map and box for the complete rundown of churches in the 78701 zip code.)

This religious community divides into three parts. There are small congregations, like the Church of Christ Capitol City Congregation housed in a Congress Avenue storefront, or the Unitarian fellowship that meets at Symphony Square, or the Assembly of God street ministry at Seventh and Red River. (There is also Town Lake Chapel, an almost-downtown fellowship that meets at the Hyatt.) There are also churches like St. Elias Eastern Orthodox (on 11th Street) or the First Church of Christ, Scientist (on Guadalupe), which are the only homes for those denominations in Austin - while they respond to their central-city neighbors, their location does not need to be a defining element to their ministry.

And then there are the classic "downtown churches" - the senior congregations which, despite their pride of place, now compete with congregations throughout the city for the (usually mainline Protestant) worshipper. These comprise most of the city's oldest churches, though some of the actual locations have shifted over time (such as with St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran, now on 15th Street, which until the 1950s was located on today's Capitol Extension grounds). Their histories dovetail with those of both the city and the state. St. David's, on Seventh and San Jacinto, is the oldest Episcopal Church building west of the Mississippi - consecrated on Easter Sunday, 1855. Its bell was originally cast for the first Capitol. St. David's near-neighbor, Central Presbyterian (formerly First Southern), was founded on its current site in 1870; Abner Cook, architect of much of downtown Austin, was among its elders, and O. Henry among its choir members.

The downtown churches are also among Austin's plushest; both the ancient (St. David's, St. Mary's) and the modern (St. Martin's, First Baptist) sprawl and soar on a scale unmatched by most Austin houses of worship, enough so to compete with their office-plaza neighbors. The interiors are likewise opulent, sometimes surprisingly so, as with Central Presbyterian. While some downtown revitalistas and master planners may object to their assertive presence, the churches have done much to keep the business district architecturally eclectic, and to visually reinforce that Austin is a historic town, not a steel-belted New City sprung forth from the prairie.

(Whether or not you like the mod design stylings of First Baptist, with its rust-colored cladding and theatre-style main entrance, it's a welcome relief to the parking garages that surround it.)

Their location and size have also made the downtown churches among Austin's busiest, both as places of worship and as central-city landmarks. Both St. Mary's and St. David's have at least two worship services every day; St. Martin's, six each week; Central, four each week. More noticeable are the activities happening outside the nave: church schools and day-cares, concerts, Boy Scout meetings, you-name-it Anonymous meetings, outreach programs for the homeless, for Girls in Trouble, and for people with AIDS. St. Martin's calendar is typical - in one week in mid-August, the church has 46 scheduled activities.

As this inventory implies, the downtown ministries have to function within a double identity. On the one hand, since the business district doesn't have enough residents to support one major congregation, let alone a dozen, the downtown churches draw attendees from throughout Austin and beyond, sometimes far beyond. On the other hand, since the business district has plenty of people who need child care, or a place to meet, or a place to get help, most of the churches are providing an extensive array of services to non-members in the downtown community - what one pastor refers to as "the shadow parish."

As a whole, this duality seems to be a source of energy, rather than tension, for the congregations. At Central Presbyterian - whose congregation, when the present church building was erected in the 1950s, elected to remain downtown rather than relocate - the church takes great pride in being "in the heart of the city," "maintaining a vital presence in the central city," and believing "that the entire city is our parish." Indeed, the name "Central" was not taken until 1983, to emphasize these commitments. The church's brochure (which contains all the above quotes) opens with a verse from Jeremiah - "Seek the welfare of the city... for in its welfare, you will find your welfare." (The city in question is Babylon, which may be appropriate.)

At street level, this translates into offerings that meet the needs of downtowners while complementing the ministry - child care and education being the most prominent. All the churches that offer such programs identify them as major attracttions for new members - people who work downtown, put their kids in day care at the nearest church, then start showing up on Sundays (or at lunchtime, or at St. David's before-and after-work prayer services). In addition, in the words of St. Martin's associate pastor Rev. Anamae Storbeck, "our convenience for child care ensures that we have a very diverse and multicultural student body, which is itself a wonderful element of the ministry." (The same is true at other downtown church schools and kids' programs.) Another common thread among the churches is an active music ministry - concerts and choirs abound - possibly because the churches are large and relatively well-off, and the downtown location is convenient for a wide audience.

But one can see the more challenging side of downtown religion pretty easily - go by Central Christian Church after hours, and an engraved sign directs people in need of emergency assistance to the Salvation Army and Caritas. The chiaroscuro strokes of urban life - homelessness, poverty, chemical dependency, AIDS, and combinations thereof - occupy both the energies and the emotions of the downtown ministries. "I can tell you a lot about downtown Austin, just from the people sleeping on our steps," says Storbeck. "People aren't just falling through cracks in the system in Austin; they're falling through caverns in the system."

Austin's downtown safety net is almost entirely rooted in the religious community - the feeding, shelter, and financial assistance programs are all functions of one or another ministry. (With the Seton/Brackenridge merger, even the downtown emergency room - the only medical care available to many - will be run, and in part supported, by a religious organization.) For people with needs that go around or beyond the offerings of Caritas or the Salvation Army - both of which receive substantial support from the downtown congregations - direct appeal to the churches is the only option, and the ministries are in the uncomfortable position of having to limit how, or how often, they can help the disadvantaged. "It's really frustrating, because you want to see people's basic needs being met," says one pastor, noting that even bathroom privileges have to be rationed. "I would like to see the churches and the city work together to create a facility just for public toilets."

With the space and resources at their disposal, the notion that the churches could themselves provide additional facilities for social services, whether individually or in concert, is an obvious one. But considering the tension that already exists between downtown merchants and social caretaking facilities like Caritas and the Salvation Army, expanded services for the poor and homeless would hardly be popular with the revitalistas. "If the churches were to create space," says Storbeck, "it would certainly create tension between them and their neighbors. It's a sad reflection on the moral fabric of our culture."

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