As he watches downtown Tulsa slowly emerge from a decades-long slump, the Rev. Dr. James Miller gets the feeling he's seen it all before, or at least most of it.
While serving as pastor at a Presbyterian church in Indianapolis in the early 1990s, Miller was witness to that city's efforts to awaken its dormant downtown. Indianapolis had long been home to the world's most famous automobile race, and it served as the state capital, but other than that, it had little on which to hang its hat. A sprawling metropolitan area in the middle of an agrarian state, Indianapolis had little to distinguish itself from other Midwestern cities of similar size and makeup.
But city officials set about changing that in the 1980s. They envisioned a package of civic improvement projects designed to attract outside investment, gained the approval of local voters, and started the process of making their downtown a cultural, convention, sports and tourism destination instead of simply a place where tens of thousands of people went to work each weekday, then fled for the suburbs at 5pm.
The effort was a smashing success. By the mid-1990s, Indianapolis had one of the most bustling, interesting downtowns of any American city outside of a major population center. It had the NFL's Colts playing in the newly built RCA Dome, later replaced by the Lucas Oil Dome, though Peyton Manning had not yet arrived to rescue the franchise from mediocrity. It had the NBA's Pacers, coached by local hero and hoops legend Larry Bird, playing in Market Square Arena, which later would be replaced by Conseco Fieldhouse. It had Victory Field, widely regarded as the best ballpark in all of minor-league baseball. It had the newly constructed Chase Tower, the state's tallest skyscraper at 48 floors. It had the Circle Center Mall, one of the most successful downtown malls in America. It had a mammoth, newly built convention center. It had a zoo, a state park, a canal, a number of monuments and museums and a slew of new hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, apartments and retail businesses. It was also the state's financial capital.
Downtown Indianapolis had become, in many ways, what downtown Tulsa aspires to be more than a decade later. People flocked there to do all sorts of things--except attend church.
"I came from Indianapolis in 1992, and it had one vibrant congregation downtown in the heart of the financial district," Miller said. "Many congregations had moved out to the suburbs."
The situation in Indianapolis was hardly unique. Cities across the country had been watching their churches follow the population base to the suburbs for decades since the end of World War II, when sprawl became a deeply engrained part of American culture.
So imagine Miller's surprise when he moved to Tulsa to become pastor at First Presbyterian Church, 709 S. Boston, and found his new church surrounded by other churches that not only had managed to remain viable but were actually thriving, even as the rest of downtown slumbered.
"To come to a place like Tulsa and find a vitality, and growing congregations--healthy congregations--in a downtown district, I do think sets Tulsa off as an anomaly," he said. "That's exactly the way I felt when I moved here."
Seventeen years later, downtown Tulsa's status as the local spiritual capital remains firmly in place, even as the rest of the district seeks to rally behind renewed public and private investment. In fact, on any given Sunday, the number of people who drive downtown to attend services is said to rival the estimated 40,000 people who work downtown Monday through Friday.
Miller's First Presbyterian is joined downtown by a host of other churches including Holy Family Cathedral, 1222 W. 8th St.; Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, 1301 S. Boston; First Baptist Church, 403 S. Cincinnati; First Christian Church, 913 S. Boulder; Vernon Chapel African Methodist Episcopalian, 307 N. Greenwood; First Church of Christ, Scientist, 924 S. Boulder; First United Methodist Church, 1115 S. Boulder; Greek Orthodox Church Holy Trinity, 1222 S. Guthrie; Mount Zion Baptist Church, 419 N. Elgin; Nogales Avenue Baptist Church, 102 S. Nogales Ave.; and Trinity Episcopal Church, 501 S. Cincinnati.
"Obviously, there is something unique about Tulsa that this is happening to the degree that it is," said Deron Spoo, senior pastor at First Baptist.
Others go even farther.
"It's a phenomenon," the Rev. Deacon John M. Johnson, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, said of the success downtown churches have maintained over the years. Johnson said it is not unusual for older Catholics everywhere to continue to worship at a downtown cathedral long after they have moved to the suburbs simply because they feel so much emotional attachment to it.
"A lot of them were married there, they received the sacraments there, they love it," he said. "It feels like a real Catholic church."
But he is deeply impressed by the loyalty that younger worshippers at Holy Family and other downtown churches apparently feel.
"We regularly have parishioners drive from all over the county (to attend mass)," he said. "It's bizarre."
Nobody really seems to understand why Tulsa has defied a trend that has swept across so many other cities in the last half century. Miller believes there is a deep connection between downtown Tulsa and its places of worship, perhaps more than in a lot of communities, but he still wonders how they've maintained that relationship through thick and thin.
"The marketplace and the worship community coalesced and grew as the city grew," he said of First Presbyterian, noting that most other downtown congregations would most likely tell a similar tale of their evolution. "The surprise is that that vibrancy would be maintained over 100 years, through a depression, and oil booms and busts. It raises some wonderfully insightful questions."
Many of the churches in downtown Tulsa have been there almost from the day the city took root. Among the first was the First Baptist Church, which has been led by Spoo for almost nine years. "Our church predates statehood," he said. "We've been here for 110 years. We actually started in a funeral parlor. How's that for dreary?"
With a membership of 1,500 people today, First Baptist has come a long way from its days of sharing space with the dearly departed. The church has not reclaimed the membership high-water mark it enjoyed in the 1950s -- about 2,000 members -- before the exodus to the suburbs began in earnest, but Spoo said much of the reason for that can be attributed to the presence of a large Baptist congregation in south Tulsa, where so much of the local population has gone.
As for his own church, Spoo couldn't be happier, explaining that 50 percent of First Baptist's membership has joined in the last 10 years. That growth certainly can't be explained by a downtown population boom, as there hasn't been one.
"Sometimes I wonder why people drive downtown (to attend church). I pass by four or five churches on my way downtown" from his home in south Tulsa, Spoo said.
The First Baptist pastor takes his answer from the enthusiasm he sees among the twentysomethings in his congregation.
"If they're going to have faith, they want it to have a tangible aspect to it," he said. "I'm really encouraged about many of the younger followers of Christ. They don't want to sit, they want to serve."
First Baptist is located downtown for a reason, Spoo said.
"We're here to minister to the people on our doorstep -- the under resourced in Tulsa," he said. "God bless a church that reaches out to the poor."
That's a sentiment that was expressed by a number of those connected with downtown churches. Having to give people a reason to drive miles out of their way to attend services--especially when many of them are already making that commute five days a week--means you can't simply open your doors and expect worshippers to show up. Many downtown Tulsa churches have remained successful by embracing the downtown environment, rather than feeling like they have to overcome it.
"We, of course, are eager for people who live close to us to come to Boston Avenue, but we are nevertheless a destination church and have people regularly drive 25 or 30 minutes to come to us," said Dr. Mouzon Biggs, senior pastor at Boston Avenue United Methodist, which was founded 116 years ago.
Biggs said despite that there are 43 Methodist churches in the metro area, Boston Avenue ranks as one of the nation's largest with a membership of a little more than 8,000--a growth of about 2,000 worshippers since he arrived 29 years ago.
During those three decades, he has endeavored to reach out not just to other members of the faith community but to anyone who calls downtown home or has an interest in it.
"We're not trying to be an island here in the heart of the city," Biggs said. "We want to work for them and make Tulsa a better place for all our citizens."
Boston Avenue, First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First Christian, Holy Family and many other downtown churches aggressively seek to do that through a variety of ministries and community support programs designed to help some of the city's needier citizens. First Presbyterian, for instance, has a long tradition of providing assistance directly to the needy, as well as to community service organizations. At one time or another, the church has housed the Tulsa Boys Home, the Margaret Hudson School for Girls, Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity and Campfire Boys and Girls. Miller said the University of Tulsa was even incubated in the church's basement.
"All of that shapes a congregation's ideals, history and heritage," he said.
Miller said his church's downtown location always leaves one question on the front burner for him: "What are you doing to serve the common good?" he asked. "I find that a lively and engaging question."
Spoo illustrated the need for that kind of commitment to his own congregation in a stark way a few years ago when the church was struggling to attract volunteers and resources for its Caring Center ministry, which provides food, clothing and other assistance to Tulsans.
One Sunday morning, the members of his church arrived for a service to find an apparent homeless man sitting on the front steps, not an unusual occurrence. As they filed past to take their seats, few paid the man--clad in old jeans and a hooded sweatshirt that covered his face--any notice.
When the time came for the service to begin, the man got up from the steps, walked down the center aisle of the church, removed his hood and took his place at the pulpit. It was Spoo, and his message to the congregation that day reflected the lesson of Matthew Chapter 25, in which Jesus admonishes some of his followers:
" ... 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn't give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn't take me in; naked, and you didn't clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn't visit me.' Then they will also answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn't help you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Most assuredly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn't do it to one of the least of these, you didn't do it to me.' "
The episode had its desired effect. First Baptist now has 150 volunteers, and Spoo's performance as a homeless man has gone down in church lore. It also brought into sharp relief its reason for being, he said.
"Downtown is not just our location, it's also our purpose," Spoo said.
Serving the Faithful
But none of that is to say downtown churches have forgotten their obligation to their own congregations. Johnson said part of the reason for Holy Family's success might be its flexibility. He pointed out the cathedral offers three daily masses on weekdays--at 7:30am, 12:05pm and 5pm--in an effort to give downtown workers every opportunity to attend mass.
Spoo said First Baptist started a program during Oklahoma's last oil bust in the 1980s that provided financial assistance for church members unable to make their mortgage payment. "We still have that fund today," he said, noting that it began well before he started his association with the church. "That kind of generosity was indicative of a deeper commitment. Our people genuinely care about each other."
Others try to meet the needs of their congregation in different ways. Dr. Kipp Wolfe, senior pastor at First Christian, said his church's day-care center has 127 children enrolled, a program that allows working parents to be just a few blocks from their children. "That's a pretty significant thing that's provided for the downtown work force," he said.
Boston Avenue United Methodist even boasts a "Broadway at Boston Avenue" program in which members of its congregation have been afforded the opportunity to perform in musical theater productions ranging from "Brigadoon" in 1983 to "South Pacific" last year. The program is designed to promote spiritual creativity among its participants.
The Rev. Michelle K.T. Moulden, senior minister at Vernon Chapel AME, leaves no doubt about her church's approach. "The key to having a successful church is your outreach program," she said.
That may not have been the case decades ago, when Vernon Chapel--also established more than 100 years ago--was situated in a thriving neighborhood, with lots of history and hundreds of members. It benefitted tremendously from the steady leadership of the Rev. Ben H. Hill, who served there from 1949 to 1968, when services routinely attracted 500 or 600 worshippers.
That history has lengthened during the ensuring years, but many of the members drifted away as north Tulsa's struggles deepened, and it wasn't until recent years that the church began to recover, now counting 250 members. Moulden, who joined Vernon Chapel three years ago, said the church strives to offer a program that every member of the congregation can connect with, everything from a choir to exercise classes to a nursing home ministry.
Those outreach efforts have netted some non-traditional new members, Moulden said.
"Sunday morning used to be a very segregated time here," she said. "But our congregation is becoming much more mixed. We have had eight or nine white members join, and that just thrills us to death because we believe that's what God would have."
Like other downtown churches, Vernon Chapel doesn't draw on just local residents. Moulden said some of its members drive from east and south Tulsa, along with Bixby and Broken Arrow. But it is and always has been a pillar of north Tulsa's spiritual and political life. Hill himself was a member of the state House of Representatives, and Democratic state Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre is a member of the church now.
Other downtown congregations have had their own difficulties. Wolfe said an internal struggle at First Christian that was the result of personality conflicts and staff problems plagued his church for much of the last 10 years, resulting in the loss of several families, before the situation stabilized after some soul searching.
"There were some real questions about whether this church would move to the suburbs or whether it would close down," Wolfe said.
Members of the congregation asked themselves some hard questions, he said, most notably whether they could even afford the utilities and maintenance on such a large, aging compound. Eventually, they reached the conclusion that they were up to the challenge.
"They were really ready to be open to putting the past behind them," Wolfe said.
First Christian's attendance now averages about 300 people for Sunday services--a far cry from Easter Sunday 1925, when 4,000 worshippers packed the church. At that time, First Christian was the only Disciples of Christ church in Tulsa County, but that hasn't been the case for a long while, and Wolfe accepts that his church--and other downtown Disciples of Christ churches across the country--have watched their numbers decline for about 85 years. He's grateful for the resolve and commitment his congregation has demonstrated.
"Ministries come and go, but these faithful folks are here through good times and bad times," Wolfe said. "I can't say enough about them and what their faithfulness means."
Tulsa's downtown churches have also made some of the most important architectural contributions to the city's skyline, from the eye-catching copper spires at Holy Family to the Art Deco elegance and 15-story tower at Boston Avenue United Methodist. The beauty of the buildings alone can attract worshippers, but Wolfe, whose own church features a distinctive green dome, warns against letting appearance take on too much importance.
"A building can be a draw for some people, but if the only relationship you have is with brick and mortar, that's a pretty cold relationship," he said.
But for Miller, the sense of wonder he feels when he gazes around the First Presbyterian building allows him to feel connected to the people who built it in 1923.
"I find myself amazed these people had a sense of how a sacred space could shape the culture of a worshipping community," he said.
Miller understands an argument can be made for locating a church in a warehouse setting or even an abandoned Wal-Mart if it helps reach those in spiritual need. But he also believes in the power of that "sacred space" argument.
"For me, it's an added joy to worship in such a place," he said.
First Presbyterian is one of many downtown churches undergoing a capital campaign, to the tune of $30 million. Miller said its purpose is to leave the First Presbyterian campus in pristine condition for the next generation, just as its current users inherited well-maintained facilities from the previous generation.
The church also has purchased the former Powerhouse Gym building located nearby, which it hopes to use as a center for its university-, high school- and middle school-age ministries. Miller sees a double benefit in that: in addition to serving the church's needs, the move causes one more downtown Tulsa building to be occupied.
"We think it's good for the city of Tulsa," he said. "Every time a downtown church decides to stay and expand its mission and ministries, it's a good thing for this city. So we're looking at lots of options for how that building might continue to serve."
Holy Family is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar renovation, according to the cathedral Web site. The aforementioned spires are now covered in copper, and the cathedral's old roof, made of a slate material that contained asbestos, has been replaced. A variety of woodworking, painting, wiring, structural and insulating projects have been completed or are planned, and the cathedral has a new $100,000 sound system. The renovation also includes repair work on the cathedral's Stations of the Cross and statuary, and the stencils behind the high and side altars are being painted.
Vernon Chapel will launch a capital campaign within the next several weeks with the goal of providing a maintenance fund for its buildings, which range in age from 90 years to 50 years.
"We definitely want to stay here," Moulden said. "We don't want to move away from north Tulsa or Greenwood. There is so much historical value here. We look forward to building on to what we have and not leaving this campus."
First Baptist has finished the first phase of a capital campaign of $6 million, and will soon start on the second phase, seeking to raise $4.5 million. The church has nine buildings on its campus it has acquired or constructed during the years, and Spoo said the purpose of the campaign is to bring all those buildings together in some semblance of order.
Biggs said Boston Avenue United Methodist began buying adjacent land in the 1980s when downtown real estate values began to decline, allowing it to expand to a campus that today is valued at $50 million, according to the church's Web site. The church had been surrounded on three sides by an auto dealership, but when that business closed its doors, Boston Avenue acquired that land and rapidly expanded its facilities, as well as its parking -- no small consideration, Biggs said, for a church with more than 8,000 members.
During that same era, the church created an endowment fund that allows it to keep up with the maintenance on all its buildings.
First Christian's Wolfe said his church recently completed a capital campaign, but its goal was an unusual one. Dubbed the "We Would Be Building" capital campaign, the money the church has raised will be split the following ways -- 25 percent for evangelical programs, 25 percent for outreach programs, 25 percent for the congregation's educational enrichment, 15 percent for a permanent fund to support the church's ministries and 10 percent for a building maintenance fund.
When his congregation presented the idea for the campaign to the Disciples of Christ's national board of church extension, that organization had never encountered such an idea before, Wolfe said, but First Christian representatives managed to sell them on the idea. "We said, 'We're raising this money to build people,' " Wolfe said.
Though no one can say for sure if downtown Tulsa is poised to make the kind of leap that other downtowns--Indianapolis, for instance, or on a more modest scale, Oklahoma City--have experienced, the district's churches will almost certainly benefit from recent efforts to increase downtown housing. If downtown Tulsa becomes home to thousands of new residents during the next 10 years or so, as many believe it will, a lot of those newcomers are likely to look for a church to join.
Spoo cited a concept called the "donut of wealth," an idea by which it is believed that large metropolitan areas feature concentric rings of economically healthier territory alternating with poorer areas. He believes downtown is poised to once again fall into a more affluent ring because of the increase in development it is attracting.
"Downtown churches are strategically positioned to reap the benefits of that," he said.
Miller is even more optimistic about downtown Tulsa's resurgence and what it means to the churches that have remained a strong presence there.
"There is every reason to be encouraged and hopeful," he said. "I believe that. I certainly don't believe that's pollyannaish.
"Tulsa is an awakening city," he continued. "There's a renaissance going on, and downtown congregations have a big role to play in that, I believe."
But even if the current momentum toward revitalizing downtown stalls, Miller doesn't fear for the future of his church, so long as it remains true to its purpose.
"If a downtown church has a compelling vision and a dedicated commitment to serving Christ, what we have found is that people will drive a long way to be a part of that," he said. "So that's not a concern to me. There will always be a role--an important role--for congregations seeking to be faithful to be situated right in the middle of the financial district of a city."
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