|Anarchists and Methodists may seem like unlikely business partners, but at a struggling Charles Village church, a quirky venture has helped keep the doors open while bringing new energy to the small congregation. In the past few months, St. John’s United Methodist Church has been hosting such offbeat events as a radical book fair, eclectic concerts and screenings of art-house films. Throughout the week, radical authors may be reading their latest works or music from avant-garde performers may be pulsing through the building. But come Sunday morning, churchgoers read from the Bible and sing traditional and contemporary hymns.
By Sam Sessa | sun reporter
November 27, 2007
Anarchists and Methodists may seem like unlikely business partners, but at a struggling Charles Village church, a quirky venture has helped keep the doors open while bringing new energy to the small congregation.
In the past few months, St. John’s United Methodist Church has been hosting such offbeat events as a radical book fair, eclectic concerts and screenings of art-house films. Throughout the week, radical authors may be reading their latest works or music from avant-garde performers may be pulsing through the building. But come Sunday morning, churchgoers read from the Bible and sing traditional and contemporary hymns.
“It’s a crazy little project,” said Kate Khatib, a member of a group of self-described anarchists who run Red Emma’s, a nonprofit bookstore and cafe on St. Paul Street in downtown Baltimore. “There are not many churches that would reach out to a bunch of crazy anarchists, and there are not many anarchists that would reach out to a bunch of crazy Methodists.”
The partnership was born out of necessity. Last year, the congregation at St. John’s needed an influx of money and ideas to keep it from putting the space on the market. Though more people attend the weekly service now than did several years ago, there are still not enough to fill the building’s main space – let alone pay the utility bills.
“We’d gotten to a place of financial desperation,” said pastor Drew Phoenix. “Some people wanted to just sell and leave.”
Meanwhile, members of the Red Emma’s anarchist collective started hunting for a larger space. They had outgrown their cafe and bookstore at Madison Avenue and St. Paul Street and needed another home for their progressive events.
Khatib and the other collective members had used the main church space in the past for larger events, such as a book signing by Ralph Nader. When Phoenix heard the collective was looking to expand, he offered its members the building, which dates to the turn of the last century.
Instead of selling the space, the congregation and collective reached a consensus early this year to form 2640 – a nonprofit organization that rents out the space and uses the money to help pay utility and renovation costs. The group’s name came from the building’s address, 2640 St. Paul St.
They set a monthly goal of $1,500, which 2640 tries to meet through events such as the Baltimore International Rhythm Festival, local band concerts and the Mid-Atlantic Radical Book Fair.
Phoenix said 2640’s arrival brought a new sense of creative enthusiasm to the congregation. Some members regularly attend events in the space.
“There is an incredible energy that wasn’t there a year ago,” Phoenix said. “Just the presence of the collective and 2640 has generated a lot of excitement.”
Congregation members such as Kara Ker agree. Ker started attending services at St. John’s about 10 years ago, and sees the positive changes 2640 has brought.
“It’s just been wonderful on so many levels,” said Ker. “They’ve brought some energy and vitality and youthfulness to the congregation and the building itself.”
Though weathered by time and damaged by a fire, the main room that 2640 uses is structurally sound. It is large enough to comfortably accommodate hundreds. The walls are freckled with chipped paint, the plaster is nicked in spots, and water has started to leak in through one of the corners. But the space retains most of its historic charm.
Pillars stretch up to meet the ceiling on either side of the room. Where they form arches, plaster and wood has been stripped away, revealing bricks underneath. A hodgepodge of chairs and sofas line the walls, and folding metal chairs are set up in the middle area, facing the stage. Behind the chairs is a balcony with a large stained-glass window.
“It’s all perfectly safe,” Khatib said. “It’s just not the glorious space it once was. … It was the jewel of Baltimore Methodism.”
St. John’s has long had a relationship with the city’s progressive community. Some say activist events were held there as far back as 30 years ago. But that relationship eventually fell by the wayside. Now, however, growing demand for community spaces with cheap rental rates has made booking the space less a problem, Khatib said.
“There was need for people to have access to a space that’s big, that’s beautiful and that can seat 250 people without even breaking a sweat,” Khatib said.
While 2640 currently is made up of only Red Emma’s collective members and St. John’s congregation members, Khatib hopes more community activists will join the organization.
So far, 2640 has been fairly successful in meeting its monthly financial goal,” Khatib said. In some months, it has met the $1,500 figure, and in other months, it has come close, she said. More important, both groups have been able to peacefully co-exist, said Andrew Byrne, a member of both Red Emma’s and 2640.
“We get along really well,” Byrne said. “In terms of where we want to see things going, we haven’t had one disagreement yet.”
In the future, 2640 would like to tackle major renovations on the building, including fixing up the dirt-floored basement, installing central air conditioning and adding handicap-accessible bathrooms. But until it secures funding for these expensive projects, its members are working on minor cosmetic improvements instead. The wood floor in the main room now has a fresh finish, and the walls may be next to be refurbished, Byrne said.
But 2640 has also had its setbacks. Last month, thieves broke into the church and stole sound and lighting equipment valued at roughly $2,000.
Though Khatib is hesitant to declare 2640 a bastion for the progressive community, she hopes it will grow to serve that purpose in the coming years. If it prospers, the members may even consider adding a cafe similar to the one run by the members of Red Emma’s collective in Mount Vernon, she said.
“You can never tell after six months if something is going to be a success,” Khatib said. “But right now, we’re all really happy. We’re all getting along really well. We’re enjoying sharing the space.”