The Public Library as Church

I can’t overemphasize how important the public library has been for me since my husband and I have admitted to being unable to afford a place of our own. I was at the library using the free Internet when I started to write this post! But besides free access to computers and Internet, the library offers so much more. It offers warmth, escape, culture, and a place to gather in community. (Hmmm sound like a church to anyone else?)

My husband and I are living with my in-laws in a very small space. There is no room for privacy or personal space, let alone a desk area where I can work professionally. In the past when I wanted to a change in scenery I would go to a café or Panera to grab a snack and work for hours. But when there is little to no money coming in even having a coffee and pastry is out of the question. Church allows me to escape the house on Sunday mornings and maybe one or two nights a week, but those are scheduled programs with no freedom to take care of my own needs. It does provide community but not always when I am wanting community or with activities that I am passionate about. Some days I need something more. Or rather some days I need church outside of church.

Growing up my parents taught me that one of the best ways to connect with a new community when moving is to check out the church and the library. This lesson has come in handy since Panera is no longer an option for free Internet and a space to write. The church cannot provide the Internet and space I need, but the local library can! I am lucky enough to live within 15-20 minutes of three different libraries and have the ability to drive to all of them. All three have multiple private spaces to set up a laptop, connect to Wi-Fi, put on some headphones, and write. All three have computers and printers where I can search for jobs and work on resumes. But they also have so much more!

There are various book clubs, knitting/crochet groups, informational talks, art programs for kids & adults, and even local musicians. All of which are opportunities to create and build community in new ways that one may not always find at a church, at least not on a regular basis. Even better, these activities do not require ID or a library card. Anyone from the community can stop by and benefit from these programs. For people who do not have extra spending money sometimes these may be the only opportunities for learning and participating in community – the only opportunities to escape day-to-day worries of living in poverty.

One of the most memorable conversations I had last year in volunteering with St. Louis Winter Outreach was with a gentleman sojourner talking about how important the library was for him. Most overnight shelters are not open during the day, so when Bob* was not working he relied on being able to go to the library during the day for warmth in the winter and cooling in the summer. The library gave him access to the rest of the world, not only through the computer lab, but also through newspapers and magazines, all of which could be read without a card needed. (Borrowing books becomes complicated because an address is needed to get a card in the first place.) However what made the most impact for Bob was a librarian teaching him and other sojourners how to crochet.  The librarian created a crocheting community that provided hope and gave purpose to people who were lost.

The idea of community is such a key idea for what it means to be Christian and what it means to be church. When we as the church are in community we become the Body of Christ. We are given purpose and hope for what we as a community can do for the world together. The problem now though is that we as the church have forgotten a key part to being the Body of Christ – diversity. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul emphasizes over and over the importance of diversity. Verse 19 (CEB) reminds us “If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body?” Well we know the answer now because we have managed to limit communities to one or two parts. The church starts to become less appealing.

 

In a speech to the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the UCC back in October, the Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer emphasized that if the church wants to attract younger generations now and in the future it has to look for ways to do so outside of the brick and mortar church.** Saying we want more “parts” but not being willing to change or leave our comfortable space does nothing. If we want to bring a diverse community with many parts into the church we must be willing to go out into the world, not wait for it to come to us. Because as the Rev. Dr. Dorhauer said in October: they are not coming back in.

 

Obviously the church does not need to look very far for examples and reminders of how to go out and be community because libraries and librarians are already showing us a way. At the same time, there is much that libraries cannot provide that we as the church can. Not up for starting your own day shelter for the homeless? Consider starting small by encouraging your congregation to support the local library and attend its activities. Create programs that assist with policies already in place at libraries – such as “safe spaces” and “cooling centers” – while also educating the public on the roles of the policies in the community. Last but not least, support librarians in continuing to discern just policies that balance the tension of being helpful with the tension of being taken advantage of.

 

Today I left a fulfilling worship in a brick and mortar church and found even more refuge in being able to sit and work quietly by myself in the library. As an added spiritual bonus there just happened to be a local band giving a free concert and new community was formed, if only for an hour. Was the worship enough? Yes, today it was. I could have easily gone home and felt spiritually satisfied. But because I actively sought out the library beyond church I found even more joy and refreshment. I found God active outside of the church in a diverse community. God is everywhere, so why isn’t the church?

* Not his real name.

** My paraphrasing based on my memory of attending the speech and questions afterwards.

*** It’s National Library Week…which I didn’t know until after I started this post.  The theme this year: “Libraries Transform!”

 

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