Seattle ‘CultureMaker’ Nathan Marion: We Need New Abbeys in America to Foster Community, Arts

Fremont Abbey arts center in Seattle. Image via FremontAbbey.org.

Editor’s Note: Among the trends that bear watching throughout America’s evolving Christian landscapes is a holistic rethinking of physical church space—how to design, build, and share it in equitable, environmentally just, and creative ways that foster community (inside and out of the faith community.) Along with church campuses that are “green” and equipped to handle the various spiritual and cultural needs of millennials (aka “digital natives”), many congregations are designing new buildings and retrofitting old ones to be used seven days a week instead of just on Sunday, and for many more purposes than congregational worship.

Seattle arts booster Nathan Marion is a vanguard in the creative use of sacred space. In 2005 he assisted the city’s tiny Church of the Apostles in transforming the former St. Paul’s Lutheran Church into a vibrant performance venue, Fremont Abbey, in turn helping to transform the Fremont neighborhood on the city’s north side. In 2011, City Arts Magazine named Marion one of its “50 Seattle CultureMakers“.

Out of Marion’s experience with the Abbey, grew Lonely Buildings, a consulting firm that helps congregations reimagine how to use their facilities to serve their neighbors and neighborhoods. From Seattle and Portland, Houston and Austin, to San Diego and Birmingham, Ala., Marion advises congregations about how their buildings can belong to the broader “parishes” that surround them.

Writer and musician Jesse James DeConto, who works with churches in Durham, N.C., to host a monthly Beer & Hymns sing-along at a local brewery, recently talked to Marion about how churches can offer a ministry of presence through the creative use of their physical space. A transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows below. 

Nathan Marion. Image via LonelyBuildings.org.

Nathan Marion. Image via LonelyBuildings.org.

How did the old St. Paul’s Lutheran Church become Fremont Abbey?

The Church of the Apostles is both Lutheran- and Episcopal-based. The church was able to essentially buy the building through the Lutheran side. It’s a young, creative church, with lots of artists and musicians involved. The founding pastors there wanted the building to be used by the community. They knew that they wouldn’t really have a lot of use for it, besides Sundays anyways. So they helped create that nonprofit and establish the basic mission, and then I got involved with it, to take it on and really build it from the ground up.

It’s a great mixed model. The Abbey Arts (our nonprofit) leases the building. The church is still active in the space. They have services there on Sundays, for the most part. The Abbey leases the building throughout the year, essentially Monday through Saturday, with exceptions for Holy Week and other holidays. We’re doing that now in our new venue, Ballard Homestead (in a nearby neighborhood), which has a different church owner, but a similar set-up.

A lot of these churches nowadays, especially around here, don’t have a huge congregation, maybe it’s 50 to 80 people. They really just want to use the buildings one or two days a week and have an office and a little chapel, and the rest of the space is beautifully set up for events and concerts. It’s kind of a perfect fit, depending on the architectural style. That’s the market we’re seeing here. They’re allowing the community to use the building, which I think is a really important thing anyway.

No single person really owns the building, when you think about it. Its purpose is for the good of the people. On a higher thought level, it’s not like a building should be only used by its members. So that’s been a really open process that a lot of other churches are starting to see.

Have you purposely targeted churches for these arts-development projects?

Concert/art performance at The Fremont Abbey via Cocoa Dream (https://www.flickr.com/photos/haoli/)

Concert/art performance at The Fremont Abbey via Cocoa Dream (https://www.flickr.com/photos/haoli/)

It tends to be churches, I think, because their costs are lower and the buildings are often beautiful. If somebody came to me and said, “Hey, I’ve got this blank warehouse, and we need to activate it with arts organizations and nonprofits, but I need to make ten grand a month,” I’d immediately say, “I’m sorry that’s probably not going to work.”

But with churches, they’re already set up and hopefully mostly paid off and don’t have too many costs. So we create sustainable models for the income to balance out. If the costs going into it are really high, it’s pretty hard to achieve that with arts organizations and events when you’re charging ten bucks to get in.

It’s really important that it be accessible. We’re not the model of a theater where we’re charging 50 bucks a head or some big fancy thing. I think that’s why churches tend to be the ones interested. The mission alignment, the crossover is really cool to see. The mission of a lot of churches is to support people, help people, building the neighborhood and the community. That aligns much better with a community venue than it does the profit-making theaters.

Generally, most groups already have a building and they’re sitting there looking at it going, “Gosh, what do we do with this?” And they’re realizing hopefully at some point that the community could use that space. That’s kind of the key element is being able to be open and welcoming to the community and the neighbors and anyone who wants to get involved. If you’re first approach is a kind of self-preservation model of, “This is ours, we built it, so we own it,” then it doesn’t really work.

It doesn’t work for the neighbors, or it doesn’t work for the church?

It doesn’t work for either group. It’s sort of the wrong philosophy to think that because somebody created this building or donated money over the years to make it active, that we get to decide, you know, that it’s only used for this specific religious group on this one moment of the week.

A change in attitude seems to be occurring around the country. I don’t have a lot of time or energy to convince people that they should stop being selfish with their buildings. People come to me, and they get that already. They realize this building could be used in a lot of other ways. It doesn’t mean church can’t happen there also, but it’s just that awareness and openness has to be there. A lot of times it’s pushed by financial need, and so they realize, “Gosh, we can’t even afford this building if we don’t do something with it.” So, that’s not a bad thing, but it’s definitely sometimes a change agent. People realize, you know, we only have 20 people tithing nowadays, so we’ve got to figure out something. That makes them a lot more open-minded, and hopefully that can generate change and help everybody to see the possibilities more clearly.

Your bio on the Fremont Abbey website says you wanted to “change the city through community arts interaction.” What needed to change in Seattle?

I think people in Seattle and other cities are increasingly disconnected from each other in spite of technology like social media that supposedly helps us stay connected. When people are in an experience where they’re closer to others, it just helps us remember that we’re here on this planet with other humans, not just ourselves, with headphones, watching Netflix all day.

A change in attitude seems to be occurring around the country. I don’t have a lot of time or energy to convince people that they should stop being selfish with their buildings. People come to me, and they get that already. They realize this building could be used in a lot of other ways.” ~ Nathan Marion

Netflix binging is our top competitor for the arts. And that is a sign of our times. Except your public library, which may or may not be a nice space to sit quietly, you have to pretty much pay money to sit somewhere—sometimes it’s a lot of money—and there are very few places where you can actually interact with other humans.

So that’s where the Third Space concept comes in—a coffeeshop, a bar, a church, a venue. A welcoming and affordable or free space for people to gather is crucial to keeping people connected, increasing empathy, and fostering a healthy community. 

Why do the arts have the power to reconnect communities?

To be able to sit in a warm welcoming space and hear music while sitting next to neighbors, friends, or complete strangers–this is a rare opportunity in our increasingly loud and hectic world. Our brains need this quiet and calm to rest, recharge, and to help us take time to process deeper level emotions.  

Can you give an example of seeing this reconnection happen?

I remember a show: there were four musicians on stage, smiling and laughing and sharing stories and playing their music. The audience was right next to them. The people in an audience are part of the experience because they’re drawn into that. We have live painters and slam poets as well so it kind of mixes it up, and in those moments, as someone who’s somewhat of an introvert myself, I love to just be there and to see that happening and to experience it with others. I don’t know that a lot of people in Seattle especially want to be necessarily writing songs or be part of the creative process up front, on stage. But they love to be a part of the experience and to hear what’s involved in the stories.

I think it’s really rare. Seattle’s one of the least churched cities in the country if not the world, definitely in the U.S. There are very few churches that are active in Seattle, and it’s certainly declining around the country in a lot of ways. Having a place where people can connect and be in a community where they feel welcome and as safe as possible in a public event, I think that’s really important, and it’s missing in a lot of people’s lives. It’s sort of a magical moment where people just are connecting and seeing each other, when they break it down, and they’re not trying to be a big-time performer, putting on a big show. It’s just, “Hey, we’re here. Here’s the story of what happened to me yesterday.”

Nathan Marion speaks at Fremont Abbeys 6th anniversary celebration in 2011. Photo via Fremont Abbey.

Nathan Marion speaks at Fremont Abbeys 6th anniversary celebration in 2011. Photo via Fremont Abbey.

How do these kinds of moments at Fremont Abbey affect the surrounding neighborhood?

Our former mayor Mike McGinn actually came to our sixth birthday [celebration] a few years back and spoke to how much the neighborhood had changed here. He started riding his bike through before he was even elected. That’s a small part of the experience–the neighborhood improvement, the walkability, all the small things–there are many more restaurants and places for people to go and experience that  in the last 10 years. It has a creative, sort of trickle-out effect when people start to come into the area more. They come to see a show or a concert, then they go to eat dinner, they walk around. It’s just a much healthier neighborhood than what it was before. 

This neighborhood—upper Fremont—used to be pretty sketchy when we moved in. There was a fair bit of crime, and not that many places to go, so it’s changed very much physically. We don’t take all the credit for that, certainly. But we’re right in the center of it. We have an identity now, and people know that. It definitely affects the community.

Part of our goal with the arts and music, giving those experiences to people, is to increase empathy. I think that’s where people come into a space, and they see an event, and they get to be opened up emotionally. It’s almost like an empathy-training system that people don’t even realize they’re a part of.

They come into a community concert, and hopefully they leave feeling more connected to other people. They’re more aware, they’ve experienced this emotional moment, which is really rare. I don’t know where else you do that. Even in a movie theater, you’re going to have that moment with a good movie, but you’re going to be sitting in the dark, you’re not going to talk to anyone, and you’re going to leave.

Nowadays it’s really hard to find those moments. I think increasing that empathy and awareness is a real key to many of our social problems, whether it be violence or police brutality or any issues that are clearly important right now. If more people understand what’s going on with someone else, the more likely they are to treat them better.

Hasn’t the Church always been a big patron of the arts and even of community groups such as the Boy Scouts or Alcoholic Anonymous?

I do see a lot of support for the arts in the history of the church. That has fallen off dramatically, though, because churches decided to be “efficient” warehouses, or they decided they needed to be able to control and censor the creativity.

I also see a lot of precedent for the welcoming spirit in the old European abbeys, and we try to model after that at Fremont Abbey. Abbeys were really places for community gathering, feasts, live music, and good stories. We need new abbeys in America, and I hope they continue to grow and empower the creation of more beautiful and profound art and music. 

  • Whiskyjack

    Many churches have beautiful but underutilized spaces. It’s encouraging to see someone come up with creative and socially-engaging uses for them.

  • Dave Paisley

    This article is woeful for not mentioning Rev Karen Ward (except for “founding pastor”), whose vision this was from the ground up, in all respects.

    The subhead could just as easily be “white hipster guy steals the credit from African American female priest”