The clock tower on the red brick First Baptist Church on Blackstone Street in Woonsocket has not kept time in decades. The small congregation moved from the faulty 1890 edifice to the chapel at St. Antoine’s Residence in North Smithfield. The helpful meal site known as Because He Lives had to move from this church due to building deficiencies. Lately, an evangelical group from North Providence has purchased the property. The weeds are gone; the doors are open; the interior is being refurbished. The former Presbyterian Church across the street is now a lawyer’s office. Not too far up the street, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church ministers to the area’s Eastern Europeans. It’s neighbor, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, only yards away, has been beautifully restored after a dreadful fire three years ago. Not far from that, St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic parish, enlivened by recent immigration from Poland, is famed for its golumkis and pierogis during seasonal festivals. Dom Polski, once a nearby Polish social club, is now a Buddhist temple. St. Mark’s Lutheran Church farther up the street has the neighborhood’s first lady minister. Quite nearby, an Evangelical bishop presides over the former Our Lady of Victory Church with an ambitious music ministry and much civic involvement. The once parish school is long empty. The former Keough Council Knights of Columbus on North Main Street is now a Pentecostal Temple. And a block away, St. Charles Borromeo parish opens its hall doors each Thursday to an eager line of homeless, disadvantaged, and low-income citizens who leave with bags filled with groceries and necessities. The parish’s former Mercy convent is now occupied by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. And this is all in just one Woonsocket neighborhood!
The face of religion is clearly changing — in Rhode Island and around the world. The old inter-denominational rivalries are fading. Several Catholics priests travel back and forth from the two parishes committed to their care. Impressive nineteenth century houses of worship are open for the few souls still in the old neighborhoods while newer, barer edifices serve numerous new arrivals in the suburbs. Immigrants from traditionally Catholic backgrounds are sometimes effectively welcomed into large Catholic surroundings while others embrace small, informal non-denominational communities at various sites. And of course recent attention has been focused on those who “have strong spiritual & religious beliefs but do not affiliate with a particular religion” — the so-called “Nones,” as in “None of the above.” In 2007, 16 percent of Americans claimed to be unaffiliated; in 2016, 20 percent of Americans are now without a church. And for those under 30 years old, 32 percent are described as religiously unaffiliated. While many try to dismiss these sad statistics by citing that 68 percent of young Americans claim they still believe in God, their optimism is cooled by the fact that only 5 percent of the under-30s surveyed attend weekly worship. Of these, most have never attended church either as children or as teenagers. So good practicing Catholic parents can take some heart! Equally alarming and challenging are the statistics that over 70 percent of under-30s support legal abortion and same-sex marriages. Clearly, an older generation of clergy, religious and laity has failed to pass on their religious beliefs, practices and affiliations to much of a younger generation.
The prophet Habacuk complains in this coming Sundays’ first reading about the disastrous injustices promoted by his own people and by foreigner invaders: “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.” So like Christian believers in America’s very secular society, Habacuk had his cultural wars too. But the prophecy does not end there. Habacuk continues, “Then the LORD answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” Christianity has survived challenges since Apostolic times. And frankly the Church has learned from those challenges. The Church will survive secularism as well and no doubt appreciate human nature and God’s natural universe all the more. “…the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” Changing times and grim statistics might wear heavily on believers; but the just who keep the faith shall not be disappointed. God will inevitably accomplish his purposes.