If Churches Looked Like Libraries: Imagining New Sanctuary Spaces

Being a bi-vocational Presbyterian minister and reference technician at a public library has opened my eyes to the ways in which people find communal meaning in both sacred and secular spaces. Every person that comes through the door of the library or the church carries with them their own story of how they came to be, with all the anxieties and hopes of who they are striving to be and the with the hope that they can continue growing intellectually or spiritually. Within that identity, we recognize that there at the intersection of race, gender, nationality, sexuality and ability, is class. Class is one of the few flexible variables of a person’s identity which gives them social mobility, and both the church and the library are places that hypothetically welcome and support people from all classes.

Tweet by @Amanda_Killian A viral post by Twitter user Amanda Killian states that “libraries literally aren’t just a place to obtain books for free. They’re one of the few public spaces left in our society where you’re allowed to exist without the expectation of spending money.” Obviously, the church popped into my head as the second place where people are free to be who they are without being shaken down for occupying space, but then I asked why it might not be the first place.


Every day when the doors to our library branch open, they open to every type of person. The patrons who come into the library, weary with a garbage bag full of belongings, or who fall asleep in chairs, wash themselves in bathroom sinks, or come in to get out of the cold, are there because we are the very last people they can turn to. We are the last people they can have a civil conversation with, the last people that won’t ban them from coming back if they commit an offense, and perhaps the only people that genuinely ask how they are and will listen for the answer. We are their only family, the only people that will sit with them to help them work on a resume, help them send their money to a family member in prison, assist them in looking for work after incarceration, communicate with family on the other side of the world, teach them how to use technology, and fill out tax returns or Medicare applications. We are the place they can come to ask questions without being judged or rejected for not being smart or wealthy enough to be there. We are the place where parents know their kids can meet with friends and study when there are no adequate community centers or responsible adults to watch them. We are the place where the lonely can learn a new skill, make new friends, learn about other cultures and artforms and participate in community dialogue- all for free, every day that we are open. It’s when I get to participate in their victories and their successes that I truly feel like I am in the midst of the Kingdom of God. I have even joked with colleagues that sometimes I do more ministry at the library than within the institution of the church.

There lies the point. For most people, that Kingdom of God feeling should be the way we feel at our churches. Our churches’ mission statements reflect this with neatly packed phrases like “being the love of Christ in the world” or “living God’s Love.” However, I find that while the food banks, spaghetti dinners and annual mission trips to “less fortunate” countries are all done with a great love and zeal for the Gospel,  we struggle most with connecting day to day with the poor- not just the poor in spirit, but the poor that are victims of intentional oppressive policies that result in their limited social mobility. I find myself asking, what if the church looked more like the library? What if it became a place where it wasn’t just open for the holy activities and works of charity? What if it was more than a place that isn’t just sought out in situations that call for spiritual, emotional or physical damage control, but rather organized in a way that was centered on empowering and sustaining the people that need help the most? What if we stopped complaining about how people don’t come to church anymore and started providing the services and things that people need for life to be not just livable, but bearable, and dare I say it- joyful?

You might be thinking that your church already does a combination of these things. I find myself blessed to be living in a city where many of our churches take turns being a shelter for those without homes and do their best to care for them through soup kitchens, thrift stores and other community activities. However, our care for the poor should not be this one niche thing that our church does once a week, but rather the core of our everyday mission. We need to take steps to move past charity, which is important and worthwhile, but is also like trying to put a bandage on hemorrhage. Instead, I am suggesting that our churches, much like our library does, team up with organizations, lawyers, professors, and congress people to implement both individual and communal change. We can move from meetings to mobilization, from charity to sustainability, and from education to implementation.

Painted sign saying "Fight poverty, not the poor."In order to do this, we must be willing to be people that are open to the questioning and transformation of our assumptions about poverty and our role in the ways we help or hinder others to get out of it. Just like the primary purpose of a library might be to gather materials and resources for the public’s knowledge, the church’s primary purpose is for worship. Any institution needs a guiding mission to function and exist, but we must always be reforming it. I have heard librarians complain that sometimes they feel like they are more like staff at a social services agency. Sometimes this is said out of compassion fatigue or sometimes it is said in condescension. When I hear complaints like this, I realize it is because when patrons, politicians or even librarians themselves think about our role, they severely limit what we do to the intellectual. They are uncomfortable with embodying a mission that encourages both lifelong learning and lifelong investment in our community so people can learn not just to survive but thrive.  I was shocked to find out that some libraries are so uncomfortable with being with the patrons, that staff are told not to come out from behind the desk at all!

We see that culture in our churches, as well. We will help people as long as those people fit in our limited idea of what we think a person that needs to be helped looks like, and we have a limited idea of how we see ourselves in helping impoverished members of our community. We want to help the people that will let us pray for them, preach to them, and come to our meetings and events. On an average Sunday, we do not find ourselves sitting in the pews next to the person that might talk to themselves due to mental illness, or next to a person with holes in their shoes. We find ourselves sitting next to mostly middle class or affluent people, all with good hearts, but with few ideas of what it means to dwell and worship with the poor.

There are those that talk about churches and libraries becoming irrelevant or obsolete. Typically, those people are in positions of high social mobility who don’t “need” either. They are people who can afford to go almost anywhere for their education or entertainment, that are well supported by friends and family, and have lives that keep them busy enough to not think of the bare necessities that, for them, are easily attainable. It is up to us, the church, to contest and proclaim that the church will always be relevant if we serve, advocate for, and live with the impoverished and are invested in their wholeness.

Jesus has said the poor will always be with us. Unfortunately, many of us have read this as meaning that poverty will always exist and it’s a losing battle. Jesus, as he does consistently in the Gospels, invokes the Deuteronomic law in which God insists that since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, that we are to open our hands to the poor and needy neighbors in our land (Deuteronomy 15:11). The church can become, if we let it, a haven for all people. It can truly become a place where people can come to have the expectation to rest from weariness, to learn something new, to be loved and protected, and to feel a little heaven on earth, not only Sunday, but every day.

Janine Carambot Santoro is an Associate Chaplain at St. Luke’s University Hospital and a Library Technician at Bethlehem Area Public Library, in Bethlehem, PA. Janine received her B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University (NJ) and her M.Div from Drew Theological School (NJ). Her recent research interests include public theology, Christian ethics, and pedagogies of healing. She currently enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and creating curriculum and workshops for sacred, (w)holistic work to be done in secular places.