Drop by the corner of Kingshighway and Washington in the Central West End. On the southwest corner you will see a stately, Greek-revival, turn-of-the-(20th)century building. A look inside will reveal a bustling, turn-of-the-(21st)century incubator of neighborhood service, advocacy organizations and entertainment space. To be sure, if you are looking for a quiet place to pray or meditate, most of the time you can find that in either the main sanctuary or the chapel. And, of course, there are several options for worship on Sunday but during most of the week, in most of the building, there is a LOT going on behind these old walls.
The congregation at St. John's, like so many urban congregations, faced a declining population in both their neighborhood and their membership in the last twenty to thirty years. But instead of becoming entrenched and isolated, this congregation decided to take its two greatest assets the building, and a strong congregational commitment to the vitality of the city and make a difference.
From the date of its founding in 1868, St. John's Church has been an urban congregation, dedicated to the vitality of the city of which it is a part. There have been many great changes and adjustments along the way, but the mission has never changed. As the population of the city moved west, St. John's moved in 1902 from its original location at 29th and Locust to the corner of Kingshighway and Washington in what is now known as the Central West End but what was then known as the far western edge of the city.
Many of the early members of St. John's Church were the major business leaders of St. Louis, people like Samuel Cupples, Samuel Kennard and the O'Fallon family. These influential families transformed St. Louis from a river port to a major industrial power. But, along the way, they and St. John's were looking out for other, more quality-of-life issues as well. Mr. Cupples gave a new building for the Methodist Children's home in the early part of the 20th century at 4385 Maryland, and the women of St. John's took major responsibility for running it for many years. After the children's home moved to Webster Groves this building fell into disuse, but the people of St. John's are proud to see it now used for the Supportive Housing Facility of Doorways. St. John's current pastor served on the board of this great agency for quite a few years.
St. John's was also the founder of or heavily involved in the cultivation of Kingdom House and Metro Ministries, two fine, United Methodist social service agencies that have done great work in our city for many, many years. Members of St. John's were also major investors in Barnes hospital and Washington University in their early days. During the first half of the 20th century, St. John's also established new Methodist congregations in Japan, China and Brazil.
One of the really unique ministries of St. John's was a group called the Mothercraft Class, established in 1918, a concept that eventually spread to 40 other churches. It was a forum for training in childrearing and also in philanthropic work.
St. John's was always active in ecumenical and interfaith work, especially in the close relationship it maintained with the people of Temple Israel, which was directly across the street.
Of course, through the '60s and '70s St. John's went through wrenching changes, as much of the city's population moved west. Many of the neighboring congregations went with them. But, after due deliberation, St. John's made a conscious decision to stay and cast its lot with the city that had always been a part of its soul. The exodus meant a lot fewer people to do the work, and the way in which the church functioned had to change a great deal. It was a risky and scary decision, but the dedication to the city was strong and decisive.
Today, while St. John's does not have the seemingly boundless financial resources with which it was once blessed, it has discovered it can still serve. First of all, St. John's is trying to make sure that the building is still an asset to the neighborhood and some major exterior improvements have been undertaken with that in mind. Secondly, the congregation has tried to make their building accessible to and a resource for a number of other organizations. They are proud to provide worship space for Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis. Their decision to assist this gay/lesbian congregation, as well as a commitment to the inclusion of GLBT people in their own congregation, sometimes puts St. John's at odds with many others in their own denomination, but is consistent with their dedication to social justice.
The church also provides performance space for City Theatre, Ragged Blade Productions, and Off Center Theatre, collectively known as the Theatre at St. John's, thereby providing a venue for live theatre in a vital but otherwise theatre-less neighborhood of our town. St. John's also provides office space for the Missouri Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the St. Louis Chapter of Church Women United, emphasizing their support for social justice ministry.
They have tried to maintain a long-standing concern for the children of the neighborhood with a Boy Scout program and have teamed with other neighboring congregations in Holy Ground team to help (mostly with clean-up and renovations) some of its neighboring families. St. John's is one of the earliest members of Congregations Allied for Community Improvement. Continuing an outreach beyond the city, St. John's has a relationship with the Methodist Church of Mozambique and supports one of their clergy.
In the midst of this concern that their building not become a museum of the glorious past but an engine for rebirth of the neighborhood and the city, the church has still maintained a vital and exciting worship life with great music, an incredible choir, good preaching and a diverse, very friendly congregation, where visitors and seekers are warmly welcomed.
The outside of St. John's, while a beautiful and historic architectural treasure, may look a bit staid and traditional; but a peek inside reveals a microcosm of innovation, energy and vision, a people dedicated to being vital leaders in the renewal of our city.
Wally M. Shearburn is the senior pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church, a position he has held since 1996.