POSTED ON APRIL 20, 2011:
When businesses stopped believing, the congregations kept their convictions. Downtown churches these days are showing Tulsans the way.
This Sunday morning, April 24, thousands of area families will leave their homes in Midtown, South Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Owasso, Bixby or Jenks, climb in their cars and drive downtown for Easter services at one of the 10 churches of various denominations that exist inside the city's inner dispersal loop.
While attendance at each of those churches is likely to swell a bit because of the holiday, there won't be an unusually large number of people congregating downtown on Easter Sunday. That's because Tulsa's numerous downtown churches are among the most robust in the country, with two of them -- Boston Avenue United Methodist Church and the First United Methodist Church -- boasting two of the largest congregations of any Methodist church in the country with more than 8,000 members each.
On any given Sunday, an estimated 30,000 worshippers flock to the district -- a number that rivals the number of office workers, government employees, bartenders, hotel maids, waitresses, retail sales associates and, yes, even lowly newspaper reporters who populate downtown from 9am to 5pm each workweek.
Tulsa isn't unique in its ability to sustain so many large and successful downtown congregations, but it certainly is unusual.
Churches in most population centers across the country have followed the residential base to the suburbs, resulting in the downsizing or sometimes even the closure of the downtown locations that once served as their denomination's flagship. Tulsa's ability to buck that trend is a major reason why its downtown didn't suffer more dramatically in the aftermath of a pair of oil busts in the 1980s and early 2000s that saw the hemorrhaging of thousands of jobs from the district.
In fact, one could present a compelling argument that, aside from city government, churches have been the most stable and sizable entity of all the entities headquartered downtown, more so than the district's banks, insurance companies, hotels, retail outlets, media outlets and restaurants.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. certainly doesn't take their presence for granted, even as downtown Tulsa continues its long climb back to relevance with the construction of the BOK Center and ONEOK Field, as well as development booms in the Blue Dome and Brady Arts districts.
"They didn't move, and they showed a commitment to stay, and they actually grew their facilities at different times," he said of the positive impact the churches had on the area.
Those churches have done downtown a great service by preserving a number of beautiful, iconic and architecturally significant buildings, pointed out Stephen Carr, a city of Tulsa planner who has spent years working on a new master plan for the district. But perhaps their greatest contribution has been how they continued to bring tens of thousands of people downtown every week when those folks would have otherwise had no reason to do so.
"Churches kept it in people's minds that downtown was an OK place to go," said the Rev. Stephen McKee of Trinity Episcopal Church at 501 S. Cincinnati Ave.
Bartlett said he knows how lucky Tulsa was not to lose that downtown anchor.
"Downtown congregations in a lot of other cities left or sharply declined," he said. "That would have been a serious problem. Fortunately, that didn't happen."
Lots of questions
As the district continues to rally and city leaders promote a bigger, busier and more densely populated downtown, the changes being ushered in raise the question of what kind of role churches will play in redevelopment. Many downtown churches feature huge surface parking lots that are viewed in some circles as impediments to further progress.
And many of those lots -- expanses of asphalt that contribute to the perception that downtown is still largely deserted, rather than a bustling, energetic center of commerce and culture -- were once home to architecturally significant or historic structures themselves, says local political blogger Michael Bates, a Tulsa native with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the city. He bemoans how many of those buildings were demolished in order to make room for SUVs and minivans full of worshippers.
"Churches have not always been about being good neighbors to the rest of downtown," he said, though he noted he didn't wish to include all of the area's churches in that criticism. "They saved some beautiful old buildings, and they kept downtown congregations alive. But they don't seem to have much regard for their surroundings."
The Rev. Deacon John Johnson, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, is aware of such complaints and acknowledges the economics of parking can make finding a different solution difficult.
"I think the last time we checked in Stillwater, it was going to cost $60,000 a space (to build a parking structure)," he said. "It runs into real money fast, and you can buy the land cheaper and blacktop it."
Johnson also believes downtown churches provide numerous benefits to the people who work there on weekdays. He was particularly struck by the role Holy Family Cathedral at 122 W. 8th St. played in providing a level of comfort to people on Sept. 11, 2001.
"The day that happened, they had mass at noon in the cathedral, not in the chapel, and it was packed," Johnson recalled. "And I would venture to say half of the people there were not Catholic. They just had a desire to contribute to something larger than themselves. And why not? The rug had been pulled out from under us all."
Bates eagerly acknowledged the contributions churches have made toward maintaining the viability of downtown Tulsa, and he certainly doesn't register complaints about them lightly. He speaks and writes often of the important role faith plays in his own life, and, as a supporter of historic preservation efforts, he is grateful for the positive influence churches have had on downtown in that regard.
He also acknowledged that having adequate parking is a legitimate concern for those downtown churches, particularly those with congregations numbering in the thousands.
"Their problem is, 'How do we get enough parking for our congregations so people can come downtown and worship on Sunday?'" he said. "But they do that without much thought to what happens the rest of the week."
The issue, he said, is not the thousands of cars filling those lots on Sunday morning. It's what happens to those spaces the other six days when he presumes they aren't occupied by church-goers.
"That points to a problem in the way things have developed downtown," Bates said. "A lot of humble, unglamorous land uses have been chased out of downtown to make way for parking that gets used once a week."
That issue is of particular concern in the south end of the district, he said, where there is also a large parking lot for Tulsa Community College's downtown campus. Not every building that was torn down to make way for all those parking lots was a notable one, Bates said. But together, all those structures comprised a mosaic that made downtown a much more interesting and diverse place a half century ago than it is now.
"If you've seen pictures with an aerial view of downtown from the 1950s, you get a sense of what's been lost," he said. "There were a lot of apartment buildings, retail and single-family homes."
One place where that didn't happen, the Blue Dome District, is now perhaps the most vibrant part of downtown, he said. The small one-, two- and three-story buildings that have survived there are well suited for the restaurants, bars, boutiques and residential developments that have taken over the area in recent years.
Bates contrasted the Blue Dome streetscape with that of south downtown, where he noted TCC and some of the churches located there have built a buffer of parking lots around themselves.
"Between the churches and TCC, and their associated parking, there's not a whole lot left," he said.
Those now-missing structures, he said, may not exactly resonate in the memory of a lot of longtime Tulsans, but that doesn't mean they didn't have value. For instance, the demolition of the downtown Fred Jones automobile dealership by the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church helped eliminate the possibility of Tulsa ever having a local equivalent to Oklahoma City's Automobile Alley, a now-thriving district that once was home to dozens of car and auto parts dealers.
Bates was particularly displeased by a decision by local Catholic Diocese officials to tear down the Tulsa Apartments building at the northwest corner of 9th Street and Main Street in the late 1990s. An old furniture store on Main between 8th and 9th also was eliminated, he said.
"That was a handsome brick apartment building with high ceilings and hardwood floors," he said. "Today, it would have been a prime candidate for rehabilitation for downtown living."
When the diocese bought the property, Bates said he was concerned enough to call the organization and ask whether there was any chance the structure might be saved. He said he was told there was not, that the diocese intended to tear it down to make room for a diocesan chancery and plaza for the adjacent Holy Family Cathedral at 122 W. 8th St.
"Of course, that didn't happen," he said. "It's been used for surface parking ever since those buildings were demolished."
Monsignor Gregory Gier, who has been the rector at Holy Family for 13 years, acknowledged the decision to demolish the buildings was controversial and that the original plans called for the building of a chancery and cathedral square on the site.
But he pointed out all the Holy Family property is owned by the diocese, and the decisions regarding its use are made by Bishop Edward Slattery. Ultimately, the diocese built its chancery in south Tulsa at 12300 E. 91st St. after it unexpectedly received land there as a gift, Gier said.
"At that point, I think the question became, 'What do you do with all this property (downtown)?'" he said. "And I don't know that any final decisions have been made about that. The immediate decision was that it should be converted to a revenue-producing situation, so it became a parking lot."
Nevertheless, Gier said, he has no doubt the bishop views the existence of that parking lot as temporary.
"I don't think he plans on that being the last hurrah for that property at all," Gier said. "His hope would be we could reach a point where we could expand the Holy Family school across the street and into that base."
Johnson said that while he couldn't address the specifics of the Tulsa Apartments demolition, he made the point that Holy Family would have a difficult time surviving if it didn't offer adequate parking for its congregation, especially considering the limited availability of mass transportation in Tulsa on Sundays and a culture based on travel by private vehicle.
"We in the central part of the United States are used to parking at the front door and going in," he said.
Other downtown churches have played a role in the destruction of old buildings, as well, Bates said. He counts the demolition of the old art deco Union Bus depot at 4th Street and Cincinnati Avenue by the First Baptist Church of Tulsa as a major loss.
Numerous efforts to reinvent downtown Tulsa in recent years as a more pedestrian-friendly, densely developed place are being hamstrung by the abundance of those parking lots, he said.
"Anytime you simply have surface parking in an area, it kills the urban feel of the place and turns it into a wasteland," he said. "If you go to vital urban centers -- places like San Francisco or Boston, or even downtown San Antonio, to a degree -- you find block after block of buildings with retail on the first floor and residential units upstairs, and people coming and going all the time.
"If you've got surface parking, it's dead all the time except for those small periods of time when people are going out to their cars or coming back. Those are the kinds of places pedestrians tend to avoid if they can, so you get this cycle of isolation."
Bates said he recognized the negative impact those parking lots were having on downtown Tulsa in the late 1990s. He approached then-City Councilor Anna Falling about putting together a plan to provide for shared parking, with churches using the lots on Sundays and downtown workers and visitors using them the rest of the week. The same lots could be used for different purposes, he said, eliminating the need for so many of them.
But nothing came of that idea, he said, and now, more than 10 years later, the problem is more apparent than ever as efforts to inject new life into downtown have been ramped up.
Bates said he believes he's virtually alone in fretting over the issue, something he attributes at least partly to apathy. But it's mostly a matter of age, he said.
"To see that part of Tulsa with much in it, you would need to have been here in the 1980s or earlier," he said. "There are a lot of young people who are concerned about downtown but have no memory of that."
Nevertheless, Bates said, solutions can be found that suit both the churches and the larger well-being of downtown.
"It can be done," he said. "But it requires thinking beyond the immediate needs of the church, which is a hard thing to do."
“Since you’re downtown, you see the needs of people,” said the Rev. Stephen McKee of Trinity Episcopal Church. “It’s not a sleepy setting,” he said. “There are always people around, and they’re going somewhere. This is a healthy and vital place to be.”
Not just one day a week
Downtown churches may be at their busiest on Sundays, but it would be a mistake to characterize them as one-day-a-week operations, their leaders say. Many of them feature ministries that cater to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised, as well as day care centers or schools attended by the children of downtown workers.
One example of that is the Angel Food Ministry at the First Christian Church at 913 S. Boulder Ave., a service that makes discounted, nutritionally balanced foodstuffs available to anyone who cares to purchase them.
First Christian also has an extremely successful child development center, with enrollment topping 125 youngsters, according to Mary Byrne, First Christian's business administrator who has been with the church for 30 years.
Dr. Kipp Wolfe, the church's pastor, said First Christian lists more than 940 members, though only a little more than half those are considered "participating" members -- those who attend services regularly and support the church financially. A veteran of Disciples of Christ churches throughout Oklahoma and Texas, Wolfe laughs when he talks about the way some churches inflate their numbers.
"For some of them, anyone who drives by and waves or has a pulse above 30 is considered a member," he said.
First Christian once had a membership many times its current size, he said, but the creation of 10 other Disciples of Christ locations in the city of Tulsa siphoned away many of those congregants. For 20 to 25 years, the numbers at the downtown location were in decline, a trend that has been halted only in recent years, he said.
First Christian remained viable by expanding its programs and reaching out to residents of North and East Tulsa, Byrne said.
"Until the recent emphasis on developing downtown, it was a struggle," she said. "And it will be for some time."
Trinity Episcopal supports the nonprofit Iron Gate program, which provides more than 500 meals a day to the area's neediest residents. McKee said the need for that service is becoming more pronounced.
"We're seeing more working poor, more children," he said.
Iron Gate has been around since 1984, growing steadily over that time. McKee said that service is a good example of how the role and operation of a downtown church is different from that of a church located in a suburban or rural setting.
"Since you're downtown, you see the needs of people," he said. "In a suburban case, you don't see that. We try to welcome people and try to take care of them."
McKee said he enjoys tackling those challenges, as well as the different atmosphere that goes hand in hand with a downtown setting.
"It's not a sleepy setting," he said. "There are always people around, and they're going somewhere. This is a healthy and vital place to be."
Trinity is one of the smaller downtown congregations. McKee said it has 1,800 members on its books, though only about 400 typically attend Sunday services. Even so, it remains a downtown fixture, one Episcopal leaders have never considered closing or downsizing it.
"That's never been an issue," McKee said. "I don't think it's crossed anybody's mind."
Holy Family can't make the same claim, according to Gier. The parish now counts more than 1,200 families on its membership roles, though he hastens to add not all of those attend services on a regular basis. Holy Family caters to a number of shut-ins who nevertheless rely on the church's ministries, he said.
"That number was very, very much lower in the late '60s and '70s," he said. "There was some consideration of closing Holy Family at one time. 'Can we afford to keep this church open?' was the question."
But by the time Gier took over in the late 1990s, that question had been answered by the transformative work of his predecessor, the late Monsignor James Francis Halpine, he said.
"When I inherited this parish, it was totally solvent," he said. "Will Holy Family survive? There was no question about that."
Gier said his move to Holy Family required a bit of an adjustment on his part, accustomed as he was to running the Christ the King parish in a midtown setting.
"One of the great differences is the congregation base, the people who call this home," he said. "It's a very different mindset than in a suburban parish, where everybody had a huge sense of ownership of a particular part of town.
"In our case, they have a sense of ownership of the cathedral, but not necessarily downtown," he said. "Most of them don't live downtown, don't work downtown and don't have a sense of downtown issues and problems. So you tend to run a parish for a more conservative element."
Gier said he's grown to love the downtown setting, though the dynamic is much different from what he experienced at Christ the King, where he described his congregation as much more strong willed and invested in the neighborhood. When Holy Family began a capital campaign several years ago to fund renovations to the cathedral, Gier recalled worrying about whether his parishioners would respond. Ultimately, and to his considerable relief, he said, those concerns proved groundless.
As he looks about the Holy Family campus today, Gier sees a thriving, beautiful compound that he believes contributes mightily to the appearance of the southern end of downtown, particularly if viewed from the TCC parking lot to the east.
"We have preserved buildings around here, not just torn them down," he said. "And I mean radically, and at great expense."
“Churches have not always been about being good neighbors to the rest of downtown,” said Michael Bates, a local political blogger and Tulsa native. “They saved some beautiful old buildings, and they kept downtown congregations alive. But they don’t seem to have much regard for their surroundings.”
The best and highest
That point hasn't been lost on Carr, the city planner who is deeply involved in the long-term effort to revitalize downtown. He marvels at the commitment those churches have made to construct and maintain such structures as the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church at 1301 S. Boston Ave., Holy Family and Trinity Episcopal over the decades.
Those architectural icons helped downtown maintain its identity when the ravages of successive oil busts threatened to tear it down, he said.
"We've got some fantastic structures," he said. "And when they've remodeled or expanded, as they've done at Boston Avenue, First Methodist, First Baptist or First Presbyterian, they've done so with the best and highest kind of development."
A good example of that, he said, has been the changes undertaken by First Presbyterian, which purchased and renovated the nearby Powerhouse Gym at 223 E. 8th St. into a headquarters for its youth ministry program. That project was accomplished at a cost of $2.7 million, according to First Presbyterian pastor Dr. Jim Miller, and it freed up 22,000 square feet of space in the church's Bernsen Building for use in the church's other ministries.
First Presbyterian features three ministries targeted directly at downtown residents -- Helping Hands, Meals on Wheels and the Lindsey House -- and is in the midst of a major renovation and new construction project that totals $36 million. The work will add 40,000 square feet of new space and result in the renovation of 30,000 square feet of existing space.
"We began serious conversations about the facility needs here at First Church almost five years ago," Miller said in a statement issued by the church. "We prayed and talked and crafted a strategic plan that would restore this 'base camp' to a pristine condition. Our prayer has always been that it will facilitate the gathering and sending of this congregation to serve the Lord's purposes and the common good here in Tulsa -- and beyond -- for the next 100 years."
Bates singled out First Presbyterian for praise in its handling of the Bernsen Building property, the old downtown Masonic temple.
"They adapted it for reuse, returned it to a street-front operation and didn't wall it off," he said.
Others have done good work, as well, according to Bates.
Trinity Episcopal supports the nonprofit Iron Gate program, which was founded in 1984 and provides more than 500 meals a day to the area’s neediest residents. The Rev. Stephen McKee said the program is a good example of how the role and operation of a downtown church is different from that of a church located in a suburban or rural setting.
"Trinity Episcopal and First Methodist certainly deserve credit for taking on the expensive task of keeping old buildings up to date and taking steps to make their buildings more accessible to those who are less mobile and meeting the needs of a growing congregation in the heart of the city," he said.
Carr doesn't disagree with Bates' contention that a number of worthwhile buildings have been replaced by church parking lots, but he doesn't take as dim a view of that situation as the blogger does.
"There are some points there that are right on, but you can choose to look at it as a positive," Carr said, explaining that many of those churches in south downtown are essentially holding those properties in abeyance until they are ready for development.
"Those facilities serve as a tremendous opportunity for land banking," he said. "It provides some opportunities to acquire aggregated parcels of land that can be used for some significant mixed-use developments."
That's exactly what city officials have in mind for the area, Carr said.
"As demand increases for these properties, and as PLANiTULSA facilitates that new kind of development, you'll see more opportunities for shared parking, and that land banking will begin to pay off," he said.
The fact that so many of those parcels are of considerable size and that they are owned by stable, civic-minded entities is a tremendous advantage for the city, he said.
"These are going to provide tremendous opportunities for growth, not just in new development, but in mixed use, where people can live, learn, work, dine, recreate and sleep in the same place," he said. "We're probably not going to be looking at the same level as we had in the 50s in retail, but I'm not saying no to that as a possibility. I understand even Walmart is working on a new downtown model. Wouldn't that be remarkable?"
Already, a number of those south downtown churches are making efforts to share their parking facilities, building relationships that could pay off in the future as the downtown rejuvenation effort creeps in from the north.
"This is something we could do to be a good neighbor to them," Wolfe said of his church's decision to offer some of its weekday parking to TCC when one of the lots there was crowded with construction vehicles. He noted that Holy Family and First Church of Christ Scientist have extended the same offer to his church when it has a particularly large midweek event that taxes its parking capacity.
Downtown churches have worked extremely well together in a number of respects, Johnson said, recalling how First Baptist did a great service to Holy Family 10 or 15 years ago.
"First Baptist opened its doors to our school when our building was being repaired," he said, explaining how the actions of those churches extend well beyond religious concerns.
Even Bates, despite holding downtown churches accountable for the loss of so many buildings he believes could have been put to other uses, credits them for making the area a better place than it would be if they had left.
"On balance, I think it's a good thing," he said of their presence in the district. "Had these congregations not stayed put, some of these buildings would have survived, some would have fallen into disrepair and some would be used for purposes not what their founders intended. A lot of former churches in other cities wind up as restaurants or discotheques or get demolished."
Johnson goes even further.
Imagine a Tulsa 15 or 20 years in the future in which downtown churches are crowded with congregants who merely had to walk across the street to attend services instead of driving for half an hour. “I hope someday, Tulsa’s in a position to have a residential element to support them,” said the Rev. Deacon John Johnson, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa said. “We’ve already got all the churches we need.”
"Our downtown churches are just stellar, considering there's no residents," he said.
If the boldest visions of city leaders come to pass, even that may change. Imagine a Tulsa 15 or 20 years in the future in which downtown churches are crowded with congregants who merely had to walk across the street to attend services instead of driving for half an hour.
Johnson already has.
"I hope someday, Tulsa's in a position to have a residential element to support them," he said. "We've already got all the churches we need."
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