A Protestant Vatican on the Hudson

You gotta like the sound of that…a Protestant Vatican on the Hudson.

Ambitious. Bewildering. Ridiculous.

It was the original vision, I guess, of the Interchurch Center, that 19-story office building at Riverside Drive and West 120th on the Upper West Side that was built in 1958 to house the leaders of Protestant America.

When President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone that year, 30,000 people came to watch.

This week, the building — known far and wide as the God Box — was rededicated. And, oh, have things changed.

The place was built, really, to house the leading denominations of mainline Protestantism and the mainline world’s chief ecumenical group, the National Council of Churches.

As we all know, mainliners have a much smaller (and quieter) influence on the culture these days.

Evangelical Protestant Christianity, a movement that includes about a quarter of all Americans, would have little interest in what goes on inside the God Box.

In fact, the building is not really Protestant any more. It’s taken on more of an interreligious feel.

As Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said at the rededication:

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The Interchurch Center is a richly diverse community of many faiths – Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and more. We are theologians, administrators, actuaries, health professionals, food preparers, building management specialists, educators, students, communicators and more. We are a community of many races, ethnicities, languages, nations. The Interchurch Center family today is almost a perfect microcosm of God’s world.

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An Orthodox priest, a rabbi and an imam offered the call to worship at the rededication.

John D. Rockefeller played a big role in planning and financing the God Box. His grandson,  Steven C. Rockefeller, professor emeritus of religion at Middlebury College, came to the rededication service.

You have to like Kinnamon’s line on what changes will take place inside the big, old building over the next half century: “Just state your plans for the next 50 years if you want to hear God laugh.”

There is something about the Morningside Heights neighborhood where the center is located. Right across the street you have Union Theological Seminary and Riverside Church. And close by are the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Each institution is a NYC landmark of sorts. But all have faced their share of changes and challenges.

The complexities of asking for God’s protection

And here is a “hurricane statement” from the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches:

The hurricane season fills us with dread and sends us to our knees to ask God’s protection.

This is an appropriate and necessary reaction, but it’s difficult to know what we want God to do for us. During the “blitz” of the Second World War, citizens of London often remarked about the difficulty of praying for God’s protection. The consequences of asking God to protect your house were that your neighbor’s house might be destroyed.

So it was with Hurricane Gustav, which at one point was a category 4 storm projected toward New Orleans. As media descended on New Orleans, millions of us prayed that the city be spared a direct hit. By Tuesday morning, September 2, it appeared that the worst had been avoided and media resumed their focus on the U.S. presidential campaign.

But had our prayers been answered? Days before Gustav approached the Gulf Coast, it landed full-strength on Cuba and did incalculable damage. Moreover, this looks like a busy hurricane season. Even as Gustav weakens into a giant rain storm, Hurricanes Hanna and Ike are loose in the gulf, and Tropical Storm Josephine is gaining strength.

How do we word our prayers now?

The only way possible: with humility and hope.

Dear God, we confess that we are frightened by our helplessness in the face of natural disasters like hurricanes and human disasters like war.

We pray, dear God, for our safety and the safety of our loved ones.

We pray, dear God, for the safety of all who stand in harms way.

But if there is no escape from the tumult, we pray that we will never forget that you are standing in the midst of it with us, that you will never desert us, that you will offer us unlimited comfort and strength to face what must be faced, and do what must be done.

We pray, dear God, to remember that in times of storm or calm, in war or in peace, we are all neighbors dependant on one another for our survival.

And before the next storm comes, dear God, remind us to ask the questions that are ever on your heart:

Are the storms that come a product of our sinful disregard for your world that has led to global warming, undrinkable water and unbreathable air?

Have we failed to see that some of our neighbors are more vulnerable to the storm because of age, disability or economic restraints?

And when the storm passes, do we lose sight of what we must do to protect one another and be better neighbors to one another.

When the storm approaches, dear God, let our first thoughts be of our neighbors who face the same fate.

And whatever happens in the storm, dear God,
hold on to us,
protect us
and use us.

In Jesus name we pray,

Amen.