By Professor Jonathan L. Walton
“I am writing you little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of God’s name. I am writing to you fathers, because you have known God since the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you.” (I John 2:12-14)
The New Testament book of I John is a profound pastoral letter. The author, known simply as the elder, reminds an early community of Jesus followers of their beliefs—God is light and love. He reminds them of their objectives—to have fellowship with God is to walk in God’s light and love. The elder reminds them of their ethical obligations—to walk in God’s light and love is to foster fellowship with one another. The elder is thus clear. Faith demands more than a personal and insular relationship with God. To affirm the parenthood of God and the siblinghood of humanity is to acknowledge a call for us to care for one another.
This is why the elder appeals to familiar household patterns. Mothers and fathers, young people coming of age, and small children are all a part of the family of God. Each has a unique gift to contribute to the community. God calls the old because they are wise, the young because they are strong, and the babies because they are pure.
In 2015 when we began planning the renovation of the Memorial Church, we had this model of community in mind. We knew the needs of this community were as wonderfully diverse as the visitors who enter our doors each day. We wanted a space that honored the noble traditions of our past. Yet we also wanted to address the pressing needs of the contemporary moment.
Consider our accessibility upgrades. A new front porch ramp, lower level entrance, and walkway on the north side of the building are meant to make the church open and inviting for all. Whether one uses a wheelchair or pushes their child in a stroller, all abilities and ages can now enter the sanctuary together. Gone are the days of backdoor access. Those who need mobility assistance are not second-class citizens, but rather each of us represents the imago Dei, the image of God.
We take similar pride in our new student spaces. Our young people are strong. Members of the UChoir, for instance, dedicate their energy and voices each week. Their time commitment is arduous. Similar might be said of our student deacons, seminarians, as well as the numerous freshmen living throughout the Yard. Many look to MemChurch as a warm and welcoming respite from the rigors of their workload. This is why we wanted to provide them with spaces that couple functionality with creature comforts. The Student Oasis and open concept kitchen can now serve as a spiritual home where seemingly indefatigable students can replenish and rejuvenate.
Finally, newly designed seminar rooms and meeting spaces have the whole family in mind. The Buttrick Room now better accommodates our Church School. Curtains in our downstairs conference rooms can provide discretion for nursing mothers during Sunday service. State-of-the-art technology upgrades facilitate teaching and intellectual collaboration. Thus, whether eight months or ninety-eight years old, we wanted to make sure the Memorial Church is open, inviting, and fully accessible to all members of the Harvard household.
The redesigned building is already utilized by a wide-range of constituencies. Harvard’s Cru Chaplains lead weekly contemporary worship, and members of “Athletes in Action” gather to study the Bible. The Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a program committed to diversifying the faculty ranks in higher education, holds their monthly meetings at MemChurch. It is a joy to see students and faculty mentors come together inside of our space. And we look forward to welcoming back the Harvard Neighbors Infant and Toddler Playgroup in the fall, along with Easley Hamner and his course offerings though the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. We are a beautiful, intergenerational family in fellowship.
As you read this, remember these vital aspects of our mission. We seek to develop partnerships both within and beyond Harvard. Along with worship and spiritual formation, this is how we seek to help community members confront life’s challenges and our own imperfections with courage, empathy and agape love. Associate Minister Alanna C. Sullivan has built strong ties with the Freshman Dean’s Office. We want to make sure that MemChurch will serve as a valuable site of human connection and social transition for students entering the College and professional schools. Gund University Choirmaster Edward E. Jones enhances our mission with his powerful pedagogy of artistry. He continues to find innovative ways to amplify the beauty of sacred choral music across the campus and globe. And this year, as both Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Cambridge resident, I continue to discover local organizations like the Cambridge Community Foundation, Enroot, and the Friends of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. These organizations, strengthened by MemChurch congregants, are transforming lives right outside of our gates. We pray they will come to view the Memorial Church as a productive partner.
These are the reasons I remain so excited to be a part of this beautiful and vibrant household of faith. As I say often, we are more than bricks and mortar. Nevertheless, it is good to know that the newly designed architecture can now support the mission and needs of the community. For as we strive to be a space of grace, we can accept the elder’s concluding challenge. “Dear children, let us not love with words and speech, but with actions and in truth!”
(I John 3:18)
Jonathan L. Walton
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church