Houses of worship represent important threads in our social fabric. So what happens when one of those threads starts to unravel?
Pastor David Moon-Wainwright told us the sad story of the water damage, mold, asbestos, fire hazards, emergency access issues, and electrical problems that caused the city of Calistoga to red-tag the 145-year-old Calistoga Presbyterian Church, known as the “Green Church.”
His small, elderly congregation – most of them in their 80s and 90s – are worshipping at the Calistoga Seventh-day Adventist Church for now. Moon-Wainwright said there’s been good progress on fighting the mold, but the other renovations will present an expensive challenge for the church.
The Green Church is a small one, but it’s still part of the Upvalley’s social infrastructure.
We can draw a few lessons from the church’s situation. Most obvious is the cost and risk of deferred maintenance. In an old building, small problems can snowball into a very big problem if left unchecked.
The church’s decline is also symbolic of broader religious trends. The Green Church has a staid, apolitical personality and a low-key attitude toward evangelism – members “don’t wear our faith on our sleeves,” Moon-Wainwright told us. It’s much like the mainline churches that flourished in the 1950s and are now losing ground as a polarized population gravitates either toward (or even beyond) organized religion’s liberal fringes or toward socially conservative evangelical groups.
The challenge for traditional churches is even more acute in the Upvalley, where the young, energetic families that are the future of any church are being squeezed out of the housing market.
Inspiring, passionate visionaries like Monsignor John Brenkle of the St. Helena Catholic Church and the Rev. William “Father Mac” McIlmoyl of Grace Episcopal Church, both now retired, brought their strong leadership skills and built engaged, vibrant congregations that continue to thrive in the Upvalley. But without that spark, houses of worship like the Green Church and the dilapidated former Baptist church on Spring Street in St. Helena can wither.
It’s too early to plan the church’s next steps, so for now Moon-Wainwright is just asking people who have had a connection to the church in the past to attend services and get involved. In the next few weeks or months, the church leadership will determine their next steps and put together a plan of action.
In the meantime, we encourage him to build coalitions with other community organizations, faith-based and non-. He should meet with the Napa County Historical Society, Napa Valley Landmarks, service clubs, every local clergy member he can find, and members of the Spanish-speaking Alfa y Omega congregation that used to rent the Green Church.
The lack of a clear plan shouldn’t prevent Moon-Wainwright from building relationships with people who could help in the next few months. With only 15 or 16 people attending Sunday services lately, strong leadership and collaboration are the only things that can restore and save the Green Church.
Our community is strongest when all of the pillars that support it work together.