Last weekend, a tragic fire ravaged Middle Collegiate Church in New York City’s East Village. The fire began in a neighboring building, spread to Middle and raged through the sanctuary, decimating the magnificently crafted colonial interior as priceless Tiffany windows blew out from the pressure of the blaze.
The Middle Church sanctuary was a unique place for more than its architecture. It housed one of the most dynamic congregations in America. As smoke still swirled above the ashes, The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Middle’s Senior Pastor since 2005, proclaimed, “We are devastated and crushed that our beloved sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned. And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love.”
She is right. The Middle congregation is the most eclectic body of believers I have ever encountered. The oldest of the four Manhattan-based Collegiate Church congregations, Middle was boldly engaged in New York’s multi-faceted struggle for justice and human dignity. The transition to this courageous and creative congregation began in 1985 when Dr. Lewis’s predecessor, Rev. Gordon Dragt, led a struggling congregation—with only a handful of Sunday worshippers—to a dynamic outreach model through a progressive blend of welcome to LGBTQ persons, social justice programs and artistic expression that energized the church community and prompted both congregational growth and deepening community involvement.
Rev. Lewis, as Rev. Dragt’s successor, amplified the church’s outreach exponentially. A brilliant strategic thinker, strikingly attractive with a warm smile and boundless energy, Jacqui—as she prefers to be called—gained national prominence. Her solidarity with Black Lives Matter, her commitment to interreligious cooperation, her advocacy on behalf of children and youth, her generosity toward the homeless and countless other involvements are summarized in the church’s call to action, “Revolutionary Love.” An annual conference of the same name has become a fixture of progressive Christianity and has grown dramatically over the years to become a “must-be-there” event for progressive Christians across the nation and beyond.
Yet the Middle Church congregation has always been her first love. And it was the sanctuary that gave witness to one of Middle’s greatest gifts: the linking of justice to joy. Each week, Jacqui—along with her husband, the Rev. John Janka—shepherded a rollicking, spirit-filled festival that is so much more than worship. It is what feeds the eclectic congregation of Black, brown and white, young and not-so-young, gay, straight, queer and non-conforming individuals (yes, including a smattering of Jews and Muslims who, not bound by dogma, came—in pre-covid times—just to be uplifted by the infectious spirit of determined joy that they found there each week.
All who gathered would sing and pray and celebrate the richness of God’s diversity right there in their midst. Messages from the pulpit are often crafted in contradistinction to the morning’s headlines—in a sanctuary offering an aesthetic, historic anchor that extended well beyond the moment. This juxtaposition gave the congregation a sense of rootedness in history while being as relevant as the morning’s news.
So, the sanctuary is gone. It will be rebuilt—that’s who Middle is—but don’t place any bets on how the future sanctuary will look. Rather, I suspect—borrowing a line from Scripture (Ephesians 3:20), the sanctuary will be “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Undoubtedly, it will be, as Rev. Gordon Dragt often says, like “one foot planted firmly in the center, the other dangling off the edge.”
Middle’s commitment to justice will live on. She will continue to serve. It’s in her DNA and the problems of this world are too intense for this storied congregation to go quietly into the deep, dark night. The flood of her revolutionary love is too profound, too pervasive to be consumed by any fire. My prayer is that the Middle family will also, even in this heartbreaking time, remain a place that links justice with joy—because that is what they have done so well for so long…and that is what makes the struggle so sacred.