Reclaiming Sacred Space

December 4, 2006

The day University Baptist Church returned to its home on Dutton Avenue was not my first day back in the building since we said goodbye to our pastor, Kyle Lake.
It wasn't the first day back for many people, actually, because we had some way or another discovered reasons to return weeks or even months before the repairs and renovations were complete.
But it was the first day we, as UBC, were able to release a long-held collective breath and begin another chapter of our story -- a story that for all intents and purposes has been written in the very building we had to say goodbye to, beginning Oct. 31, the day after Kyle was accidentally electrocuted as he prepared to perform a baptism. 
At times I felt I was alone in fighting the impatience of being away, especially as I read through friends' e-mails and web sites in the weeks after we left; their words expressed a hesitancy to return to the place where such pain had been experienced.
To clarify, the nine months we spent out of our building were not the result of hesitancy. They were, in fact, the result of a long-overdue and necessary makeover.
But finally, on July 16, we re-entered our sacred space.
Conversations of sacred space have floated among the men and women coming and going at UBC since I came to Baylor University as a freshman nine years ago.
I knew, stepping for the first time into the old building with staid green carpet and bare walls begging for personality, that this physical space would be very much a part of the church's journey as a community striving to live and share God's Word.
And it was. It is.
University Baptist Church was founded in 1995 to reach out to Baylor students who did not have a church home in Waco. It was designed to provide a place of worship and growth for young people who seek a community where they feel comfortable exploring and expressing the message of Christ.
And Kyle, himself a graduate of Baylor and George W. Truett Theological Seminary, passionately advocated for the provision and nurturing of this community.
"Our community doesn't exist because we have this building," says Ben Dudley, our community pastor. 
"But this has become," he says, "our sacred space."
Fellow UBCer Mark Waldrop remembers the first time he set foot into UBC, with its crayon-colored walls and French Quarter accents that scream "this is not your parents' church!"
"The first time I saw UBC, I was caught off guard," Mark says. "I was expecting this typical church building and instead I saw this sweet, very different, building."
On Sundays, hanging out in the hallways with friends, I often overhear visitors' comments about the way UBC operates. 
We are a unique church not only because we once hosted an '80s-themed prom, but also because we take our offering at the end of the service instead of the beginning. Apparently, this is not typical.
But our actions are not the direct result of communing inside a hiply designed space -- quite the opposite. And when we made our way to borrowed spaces in the Waco Hippodrome and Truett Seminary last fall, we did not leave UBC behind.
UBC is where we welcome college students and non-
students who seek a fresh, inquisitive approach to the Gospel as it unfolds before us, and who don't feel drawn to a traditional church setting. 
It is where we bring life to our prayers and praises, in poetry and prose, and where we gather to share of ourselves in community groups, service projects and Lovefeast suppers each semester.
We could do all this in some other building on some other street; in the beginning, we did. When UBC was created in 1995, David Crowder and Chris Seay did this in a little church on Twelfth Street near the Baylor campus. Later on, they did this at the Hippodrome.
Says Mark, "I feel like UBC is more of an idea, or a common goal. I don't really think that the space it takes up is as important as the message of the church."
For him, occupying those new spaces was refreshing and contributed to the healing process. 
But to return to the place where people make divine connections and develop lifelong relationships "feels like the cycle is complete and the church is finally reunited with itself," Mark says.
Ben speaks for the entire UBC family when he thanks Baylor University, Truett seminary and the Waco Hippodrome for opening their arms and their doors to us. 
He also reaffirms what I have come to believe about our time away; it was necessary to allow a feeling of sanctuary to be restored.
"Part of it was that there needed to be some cosmetic changes -- so we didn't just stare at the place Kyle died," he explains. But, the absence also gave community members, when they did return, a chance to feel "just safe ... like you are in a place to be with God."
Sitting in his Florida-orange office on a sunny afternoon, Ben gives voice to our desire as a community to employ the walls and floors, ceilings and doors in giving praise to God, for -- and with -- the talents He has given us.
"On one hand, it really is just four walls," he says. "But it's the place where we gather. ... There's so much life that happens within these walls."
The emphasis on art and beauty at UBC does not overshadow its mission, but it is a primary aspect of our character as a church, as revealed in our church home, and as explained in our statement of goals:

We desire to utilize and value ART, BEAUTY, 
CREATIVITY, and DIVERSITY as coming from our Creator.

Ben likens these expressions to moments recorded in the Old Testament, when people built monuments to commemorate the places where they'd encountered God.
"Your community isn't about where you're at, but where you're at is a reflection of who you are," Ben says. "It doesn't have to be 1701 Dutton Ave. But it is."
Structurally, the repairs, upgrades and renovations that were put off because of budget issues were finally completed, thanks in large part to generous friends and strangers.
"Typically, when churches go out and buy a building, they spend whatever (is necessary) to make it usable," he says.
With a church like UBC, where the congregation is made up almost entirely of low-income, or no-income, students, such a monumental task appears out of the question. And, he adds, "there's a danger if you invest all your money in a building and not in people."
But when donations from people expressing concern and care for the church came flooding in, the opportunity to perform that much-needed overhaul was clear.
Our dedicated contracting crew, which often consisted of seven to 10 people at any given time, filled every minute of those nine months with sweat and effort.
Artistically, the building doesn't look much different now than it did last year. 
The black and white rendition of the Last Supper painting, with a red apple and blue sky, still oversees the sanctuary; the women's bathroom in the front is still Barbie doll pink; and, the mellow mood lighting in "the backside" -- literally, the back side of the church -- still wreaks havoc on my poor eyesight.
And it is familiar. Safe. Sanctuary.
There was no deadline in sight, the day after Kyle died, for returning to the place where he had left us so suddenly. 
We all knew we had to take a step back, and there was no reason to mark a date on the calendar for our return when our greatest need was to grieve.
But for all of us, I believe, there also was no question of whether we would return at all. Why wouldn't we come back?
"If you put us in some random, other building, it would end up turning into this," Ben says. "That's who we were created to be."
This building, a former grocery store swathed in Christian symbols, flat-screen monitors, loud paint and coffee house kitsch, is our home. 
This is UBC.

Alexander, BA 2001, attends University Baptist Church and is also a writer for Baylor Magazine.