BY KAREN RICHARDSON DUNN
It’s Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls. A distraught George Bailey climbs aboard a bar stool at the local watering hole, hands trembling as he clutches a drink and desperately begins to pray. A man whose grand dreams have fallen away one by one, sacrificed to helping those in need, Bailey now faces utter ruin and scandal. As he sits alone at the bar, he broods upon his own relevance: Would his small world have been better off if he’d never existed?
Although It’s a Wonderful Life was released 70 years ago, on Christmas Day 1946, this iconic moment in film history continues to resonate — and not simply for its portrayal of a human being hanging in the balance between destruction and redemption. George Bailey’s self-doubt offers a glimpse into a question that we, too, will most likely confront as we try to find meaning in, and second-guess the relevance of, our own lives.
Increasingly, the institutional church finds itself in a similar position. According to churchleadership.org, some 4,000 U.S. churches close their doors each year, and 2.7 million church members are relegated to the “inactive” rolls. Further, in most of Asheville’s estimated 174 houses of worship, you’ll see far more gray heads than otherwise. In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, only 27 percent of millennials attended weekly religious services, and only 40 percent said religion was “very important” in their lives. All of which begs the George Bailey question: If the church ceased to exist in this community, would it really matter?
To those homeless folks who’ve found their way to the Haywood Street Congregation, the very question of the church’s relevance might seem irrelevant. “Haywood Street intends to subvert the ‘helping model’ of traditional church,” the Rev. Brian Combs explains. “Instead of preaching a gospel of prosperity, where God has cursed the poor and blessed the privileged, we have led with the more biblical view that God incarnates as a homeless man. So rather than trying to convert, fix or change, we welcome the psychotic, intoxicated and impoverished Jesus instead of trying to be him.”
This theology, notes Combs is primarily reflected in the Downtown Welcome Table, which serves up a twice-weekly feast for the city’s homeless that includes acceptance and inclusion as well as food. “Following a Jesus who was crucified for his terrible table manners, who unapologetically broke bread with all the wrong people, we have partnered with dozens of Asheville’s finest restaurants to offer a chair of dignity, to prepare a banquet of grace, to serve a five-course meal to the many street siblings starving for want of a seat at the table.”
Over in Swannanoa, Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church and College Chapel provides financial and personnel support to “agencies that address the immediate symptoms and the causes of food insecurity,” says the Rev. Steve Runholt. Partner agencies include the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, Habitat for Humanity, Just Economics and the Asheville Poverty Initiative. Runholt is also involved in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, having spearheading a letter to Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, signed by many North Carolina clergy, that urged the utility to close its coal-fired Lake Julian power plant.
Asheville’s Congregation Beth Israel is similarly invested in providing basic necessities to local people in need, holding food drives for MANNA FoodBank and maintaining a long-standing working relationship with Habitat for Humanity’s Interfaith House project. In addition, the congregation supports Room in the Inn, a mobile shelter for homeless women, notes Rabbi Justin Goldstein.
Women’s well-being is also a focus at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, whose Project NAF (Nurturing Asheville and Area Families) offers local African-American women both pre- and postnatal care.
In a city that honors and celebrates its LGBT community, Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ has been a strong advocate for same-sex marriage rights. When a lesbian couple who were church members sought to be married there, the congregation immediately rallied behind them. In April 2014, First Congregational joined with the national General Synod of the United Church of Christ and several other denominations as plaintiffs in the lawsuit that overturned North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Nonetheless, the question remains: Couldn’t this work be done just as well by secular organizations? After all, in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is also engaged in do-gooder work through his position at the family building and loan business. But ultimately, it isn’t Bailey’s altruistic business practices that make his life more than relevant to those in his community.
The Rev. Mark Ward of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville understands this well. “I suspect that like many local churches, we definitely had our ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ moment around the time of the November elections. Attendance shot up both before and after the election.” That, he continues, “speaks to what religious congregations exist to be and do. They’re places where people come to have life-giving hopes and values affirmed, and where they hope to find others who seek to build community centered on those values.
“Whatever you may think of the results, this campaign season was one of the ugliest and most dispiriting in our history, and it’s left many people shaken and looking for hope. But people are looking for something beyond the tit-for-tat of politics — a reminder that we are better than this. That there is a ground for hope. That we’re in this together.”
Hope. In the end, that’s George Bailey’s true gift to Bedford Falls — and the gift that Asheville’s churches bestow upon our own community. In this time of difficulty and turmoil, as we confront a new reality, could there be anything more relevant?
Karen Richardson Dunn is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and a member of First Congregational UCC in Asheville. She facilitates the Southern Conference’s Creation Justice Network.