Three years ago, at the start of a cold Philadelphia winter, a boiler gave out in the basement of a century-old West Philadelphia church, launching a crisis that has threatened a unique space where people of many backgrounds learn, eat, and worship side by side, united by the motto, “All Means All.”
The distinctive turrets of Calvary United Methodist Church soar above Baltimore Avenue. For more than two decades, following a neighborhood campaign to save what was a dwindling congregation, the building has served as a civic center, informal town hall, and multi-faith house of worship.
In a building already struggling with the usual trials of age, the heating problems pulled at the delicate fabric of this community. It also revealed the power that leaders expect will get them through this calamity, and prepare them for a stronger future.
The amount of activity behind Calvary’s red doors is nearly dizzying. On any given Sunday, three services take place back-to-back beneath an ornate stained-glass dome in the chapel: the West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship at 9 a.m., followed by Calvary Methodist at 11, and Grace Chapel Pentecostal at 1 p.m. A Reconstructionist synagogue, Kol Tzedek, also holds shabbat services in the chapel, alternating between Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
The Curio Theatre Company resides in the soaring sanctuary, renowned for its enormous Tiffany glass windows, signed by the artist himself. Crossroads Music holds world-music concerts there, too.
Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups gather weekly in a basement classroom. A large multipurpose room is host to adult fitness and youth karate classes. This month, more than 100 kids are attending three summer camps on the grounds.
Then there are the community organizations, most with social justice-oriented missions, that rent office and meeting space. And all the one-time events, including, last month, a voter-registration drive, preschool graduation, birthday party, and ordination celebration for two new rabbis.
“It’s a place that brings so much of this community together,” said Kari Collins, the building manager, who organizes the calendar that keeps all of these groups cycling through the space thoughtfully and, as much as possible, without conflict. “There’s a really special kind of energy here, because of that commitment to community. There are people who are very different from one another who are committed to sharing space and working together.”
That’s not always easy. But navigating a shared space can also lead to stronger bonds, Collins said.
“I tend to look at the conflict as a key element of community. That’s our chance to really live out our values, and to say that we’re going to resolve this conflict in a way that takes care of one another, rather than in a way that degrades us,” Collins said.
The dysfunctional heating system put this to the test. Collins began working at Calvary in 2016, a year after the boiler first gave out. Following a series of missteps — contractors who didn’t understand the full scope of the problem, old pipes not meshing with a new boiler — the crisis came to a head in late December, when the boiler froze, and furnaces and pipes burst.
Eighteen groups that regularly use the space were forced out of the uninhabitable building. The congregations found sanctuary elsewhere. The Curio group had to figure out whether the show they had been rehearsing would go on. (It did, but Paul Kuhn, the artistic director, said they nearly bought blankets for audience members.)
Finally, in February, someone on the board of trustees — a Methodist-run body responsible for the building’s day-to-day operations — found a contractor who figured out a triage system to repair the boiler, fix leaks, re-pipe much of the building, rebuild steam traps, and replace broken radiators. Collins is optimistic that the problem will be resolved before this winter.
The process was painful, said Richard Kirk, chair of the board for the nonprofit (and nonreligious) organization that raises funds for the building, known as the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, or 4C’s. Repairs will cost the community about $75,000.
And there’s been at least one casualty. Recently, the Mennonite Fellowship, which has worshiped in the building since 2000, said it would begin looking for a new home.
“Making things workable for our congregation was taking more and more energy, so this spring, we decided to explore other options,” Pastor Lorie Hershey wrote in an email. “We don’t take this decision lightly, but feel it’s what is sustainable for us at this time.”
Kol Tzedek, the largest community in the building, is also considering its future, said Andrew Zitcer, a founding member. In addition to suffering through the lack of heat — and, during the High Holidays one year, no air-conditioning — his diverse congregation is also concerned about accessibility issues, spotty plumbing, and other growing pains.
“We have, at Calvary, people devoted to the same causes. The location is unbeatable. We’d be loath to leave,” he said. “But we are a growing community. We have to see if Calvary will grow with us and if we can grow with them.”
Losing tenants threatens the building’s vibrancy as well as its financial well-being, said Collins, because the building depends on rental income for daily functioning.
Private donations and grant money largely go toward major capital projects, of which there are many. Before the boiler repairs, there was a $500,000 project to straighten the sides of the building, which were beginning to lean dangerously toward the street. An elevator to make the building more accessible for users with disabilities cost $100,000. And one of those priceless Tiffany window arrangements was so unstable, it’s currently being repaired by experts in Bryn Mawr, to the tune of $200,000.
All of these mounting costs and challenges have exposed some structural weaknesses within Calvary itself. In essence, responsibility is divided unevenly among the many people and groups invested in this building’s future.
This has been both practical and sometimes difficult, said Ursula Johnson, president of the trustees, who grew up in the neighborhood and has been attending the church since she was a little girl.
“We were referring to Calvary as ‘everybody’s church for everybody,’ and then one pastor said, ‘Everyone’s church has to be someone’s responsibility,'” she said. “You can open the doors, but someone has to close them at the end of the night.”
Collins hopes that tenant groups can take more ownership of the building as a whole, so that the community operates more like a cooperative, where every user of the space has more responsibility and decision-making power.
“We’re in a moment where there’s been a renewal of energy to coordinate as a community to support the building,” said Zitcer, of Kol Tzedek.
Struggling through this situation has tested the community: its patience, its resilience, its resourcefulness. It has also tested the shared values that unite the myriad groups that assemble under one slightly cracked, sometimes flaking roof and its gleaming, golden dome.
“There’s a level of integration that has to happen when you share a space. It’s more than saying, ‘We’re saving the world together.’ We’re trying to save the building,” Zitcer said.