The second weekend of October is Open House Chicago, when dozens of buildings open their doors and let you admire their architecture for free. Last year I spent a Saturday in the Loop at a few too many sleek architecture firms and a Sunday afternoon at a handful of South Side sites, but this year I stuck almost entirely to the South Side, where churches (including my own) had a strong showing.

The weekend gave me vivid déjà vu, but it took me some thought to realize the analog: the survey of religious congregations and the quality of life in their neighborhoods for which I was a research assistant during my last year at Calvin. That project was a qualitative and quantitative census and survey, but because I was really only involved with the data collection early on in the project, I associate the project not with the specific findings but with my immersive experience of field work.

The initial Greater Grand Rapids Census of Religious Congregations was administered ten years prior with a much smaller team. Commissioned by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, the purpose was to map the types of religious congregations in the area and draw some conclusions as to their impact on quality of life in their communities. As it was told to me, the field work was done by two research assistants on an open-ended scavenger hunt, driving around Grand Rapids all day, looking out the window and stopping when they saw something that looked like it might be a church. My time around, we had several field work teams of two, smartphones, checklists, clipboards, highlighters, Sharpies, and map tracts printed on glossy paper with green dots to mark the location of churches already in our database.

Our churches database was derived from the previous census findings and a local Latino pastor’s connections. But we were especially interested in new congregations popping up, so even though we were armed with maps and addresses, to a certain extent we too were on our own quasi-spiritual quest, rife with detours through strip malls, double takes, and U-turns. With the sun beating down and my station wagon’s AC blasting only hot air, it felt more like we were searching for the streams in the desert or panting for water (as the deer). Of course it got silly at times: my field partner once insisted we needed to check out Wing Heaven across the street and remained unconvinced when I told her it was a local chicken wings franchise. (Tagline: “Only the good chicken make it in!”)

But for the most part, this was the Greater Grand Rapids area and religious spaces were ample, from austere Kingdom Halls to colorful storefronts, mid-century modern CRCs to megachurch campuses. Whenever we did find a church, whether or not it was active, we completed a quality of life analysis of the location, noting details such as the condition of the road, how many pieces of trash were within sight, the presence of trees/shrubbery, etc.

Coming ten years after the first census, our reboot also aimed to collect data on what congregations remained, disbanded, or were replaced in their churches. Once we cased the joint, we knocked on doors or rang buzzers to talk to a pastor or church employee, if present, and confirm basic information about church services, congregation size, and contact information.

Our fieldwork showed us time and time again that the physical space we call a church and the congregation that populates that space are very different things. Upon arriving at some addresses of green dots on our census tracts, we found dark, hollow, neglected buildings, clearly no longer spaces of worship. At others, the building had changed hands, usually a dwindling white congregation entrusting it to a growing Latinx congregation. Some church folk were hostile and suspicious, while others implored us to join them on a Sunday.

When collecting data is at once so clinical and experiential like that, it’s hard not to develop your own subjective impressions; you have visited a greater cross-section of religious spaces and observed it in greater data-driven detail than even the most well-connected pastor or brazen Bible salesman. At the same time, you know you cannot speak with the authority of aggregated, crunched data. Numbers certainly may surprise or mislead, but you trust your own heuristics even less.

Maybe my previous paragraph is worse than saying nothing at all, but it gets at the fact that when I think about that experience of passing through so many churches, I feel that I have both nothing and everything to make of it.

In the past year back in Chicago, I’ve leaned hard into investing in the church community I grew up in. I’ve written about it on the post calvin several times, re-joined the choir, signed onto a committee, and left Grand Rapids at six a.m. on a Sunday morning many a time to make it in time for choir practice. Lately, I’m in one of the troughs in which empty pews, missed hymn notes, and lack of pastoral direction feels overwhelming. Even as I set out to visit other churches during Open House Chicago, I worried that visiting other congregations in similar straits would be even more of a downer.

Seeing chipped stained glass and other signs of disrepair was dismaying, but it also renewed my appreciation of how church architecture brings grandeur into public space. I was heartened to meet people who love their spaces as much as I love the one that is mine because it has persisted through the years and shifts in neighborhood demographics, population, and religious inclination. Several Catholic churches I visited were built by Irish or Polish immigrants but are now carried on by a mostly African-American congregation. Corpus Christi Catholic Church acknowledged this by adding a green, red, and black band around the molding of the sanctuary. As a member told me, “We wanted to make the space feel more like our own.” They are also working to restore the smoke- and water-damaged paintings of the stations of the cross that surround the sanctuary. This is the impression that I want to sit with, to learn from: a tradition-bound yet adaptive stewardship of space.

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