Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Infrastructure for Believers

James M. Thunder

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Upon hearing that three young men associated with Birmingham-Southern College had been charged with setting nine churches on fire, the college's president, Dr. David Pollick, exclaimed, "We share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represented the heart and soul of their communities." [1] The grief of the members of those nine congregations and their neighbors has been shared by worshipers on the Gulf Coast whose places of worship were destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yes, our places of worship are the "heart and soul" of our communities.

Over the past few years, I have encouraged audiences of believers to make their places of worship even more than the "heart and soul" of their communities. I have asked them to make them the physical center of their lives, to let their faith make an imprint on the topography of our land, to let the Spirit renew the face of the Earth in a physical sense. I call this "faith-based land use planning." It is distinct from either the sprawl of the past half-century or the principles of contemporary "New Urbanism." "New Urbanism" addresses housing, stores, schools, cars, and proposes using historic buildings or public transportation stops as focal points for revitalization, but ignores the infrastructure that is essential to people of faith: places of worship and of service, places where we love God and love neighbor, places where we, in St. Benedict's words, "ora et labora," "pray and work."

James Michener was criticized for leaving the Catholic Church out of his epic historical novel "Poland." Both sprawl and the "New Urbanism" leave our faith out of our physical habitat; our places of worship need to be front and center - as they were throughout most of our history as Americans and most of much longer history as believers. An advertisement for a luxury condominium proclaims, "Where we live affects how we live." This is also true for any believer who wishes to live a holy and devout life.

When Constantine legalized Christianity, the fourth century Christians not only built churches, but adjacent to their churches they constructed buildings for the sick, for the pilgrims and travelers, for the elderly, for orphans. This juxtaposition was important for both the believers and those for whom they cared. We see the same juxtaposition of worship, service and residence in the monasteries acclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" where he wrote of "the great emphasis on hospitality, refuge and care of the infirm in the vicinity of the monasteries." (emphasis added). [2] As a priest, St. Basil the Great (329-379 A.D.) constructed a "city of charity" (later known as the Basiliad) consisting of hospices, hospitals, a leprosarium, a school and other buildings - with a church as their focus. At one time, the basic floorplan of European hospitals was cruciform so that patients in all four wings could simultaneously attend Mass.

There are contemporary examples rarely mentioned in the secular media as models for development. To name a few: Chicago's Misericordia's 22 acres for persons with mental and physical disabilities with chapel, school, gym, bakery; Portland's five-acre St. Anthony's Village with school, green, and apartments for the elderly; Bethesda Maryland's Bartholomew House for the elderly adjacent to St. Bartholomew Parish and School; the many Protestant megachurches and their developments -- like the McLean (Virginia) Bible Church with its sanctuary and adjacent respite care center for children with special needs; and Florida's Ave Maria town and university near Naples.

Envision, if you will, the essential infrastructure for your neighborhood. First, one or more places of worship - church, synagogue, temple -- that are its focal point. Honeycombed around these places of worship are:

  1. one or more places of service such as a shelter or kitchen for the homeless, a home for unwed mothers, a used clothing store, a Boys & Girls Club, a group home for adults with disabilities, a medical clinic, an assisted living residence, an employment office, a union hall, a newspaper, a ham radio facility, a legal clinic, a Covenant House,
  2. for one-quarter mile in every direction multifamily housing, allowing for convenient access by children and adults to the places of worship and of service, and
  3. community facilities such as schools (parochial, public or private), a library, a gymnasium, a theatre, a coffeehouse, a banquet hall, a parking garage or bus or train stop.

A faith-based plan can be as simple as siting a home for the elderly near a church or a church near a home for the elderly or as complex as a development of several hundred acres. Whether we are siting a single building or platting a subdivision, "unless God builds the house, the work of the laborers is in vain." (Ps 127:1)


[1] Rick Lyman, "3 Students Held in Church Fires Set in Alabama," N.Y. Times, March 9, 2006, p. A1.
[2] Para. 40.

James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C., attorney. He has served as a grand knight of a Knights of Columbus council, general counsel of Americans United for Life and as a live-in residential assistant at Misericordia Homes. His publications include "Quiet Killings in Medical Facilities: Detection & Prevention," "Issues in Law & Medicine" (Nat'l Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled), vol. 18, pp. 211-37 (2003), and Pugin: A Godly Man?, True Principles (Pugin Society, Ramsgate, Kent, England), vol. 2, no. 4 (summer 2002), p. 14 (Part 1), vol. 2, no. 5 (summer 2003), pp. 24-27 (Part 2) (promoting the canonization of the Gothic Revivalist architect, husband and father). He is currently writing a book on "faith-based land use planning."

This article was first published in Living City magazine. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 04-Feb-07

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