The historic 1881 chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia burned down last October, which left an obvious need that can’t be put off for very long. A school for ministers has to have a place for the students to learn how to lead a congregation and where faculty and families can come together to worship. They’ve all been making do with other facilities ever since.
It’s like beach lifeguards learning how to save lives by practicing in a pool. Sure, it works to a point but eventually everyone has to go jump in the surf and figure out how to handle the occasional rip tide or sandbar.
However, it’s almost impossible to change an iconic image without creating anxiety among the masses. It doesn’t matter if the new development is to update, upgrade or fix past mistakes. Once everyone is used to something they’d rather just leave it alone.
If the object in question has anything to do with a religion, triple that sentiment and stand back. But sometimes change is unavoidable and when the beloved chapel went up in a matter of hours everyone knew that a new building was inevitable.
The questions about where and what it’ll look like started right after that initial thought.
I have a little civilian experience as an observer in this area growing up as a former preacher’s kid on the grounds of VTS. My late father, Rev. Dabney Carr was on the faculty and we lived just a short stroll from his office. There were ministers of every size and description running around the place and they all came with opinions on the best way to do anything. I learned pretty quickly that finding God was a personal journey but there were plenty of people along the way who’d love to draw you a map.
It also gave me a different perspective on all the bad press lawyers can sometimes take and may explain why my brother, also named Dabney Carr, chose that profession instead. He can always make a winning argument and some of that has to be from listening to so many learned people trying to prove they had a better handle on how to experience God. They’re not the only ones, though.
Dad used to say that parishioners didn’t like painting a chapel even if it was the same color. They’d lament about the paint that was there when they got married or baptized their child.
Fortunately, the Episcopal Seminary, www.vts.edu gets that and has started listening sessions in different locations to make sure everyone gets the chance to share their memories and voice their ideas for a new chapel.
After all, there are thousands of people all over the country who have deep ties to the old chapel. Every graduating class since 1881 passed through there as well as all of the marriages, baptisms, burials and holidays.
My Dad learned how to be a minister in that chapel, two of my sisters were married there and now, Dad is buried nearby next to his best friend, Rev Henry Mitchell. I understand the necessity to let everyone speak and help look for the places of compromise, growth and inspiration.
This is also the place where old institutions, and old ways of thinking, can transform and become something wonderful just by the act of listening and continuing to take the next step in front of them. Unexpected opportunities arise that not only enlivens our experience but sometimes can cause a ripple throughout our entire lives.
We look at everything in a different way and wonder if there’s more to other situations that may have seemed staid or even stuck. Possibilities seem to emerge out of nowhere all around us.
There are already all sorts of ideas popping about a new chapel such as a garden on the grounds of the ruins and a chapel nearby or a version of the old with some newer design ideas mixed in to the plans and all of them are being considered. Participation is expected to be high and eventually, a lot of people will come back to visit the Seminary who haven’t been there in years.
The individual transformations that come about because of the fire and now the rebuilding may end up being the greatest gift offered to everyone involved. It will be up to us whether or not we accept it. Until then, we can all enjoy a better view of the moon. More adventures to follow.